#WordUse Series:
What’s In a Name? That Which We Call a Pudding …

I grew up the child of two Midwesterners of modest means, so I knew from an early age about pudding—it was that powder Mom mixed with milk on her old Kenmore mixer until it thickened, then put in the fridge to cool and thicken a little more. You know—like a soft custard.*

But … not so fast, there, cowgirl. The meaning of this word depends on where you’re from, a phenomenon we’ve discussed before. It’s interesting to me that pudding can have several so very distinct meanings, all food-related. My Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists many of them (though not all—because, well, it is an American dictionary).

First …

The first and oldest meaning (thirteenth century) is sausage, and more specifically, blood sausage. I’ve seen this usage predominantly in Ireland, where at breakfast one is served both black and white pudding—ground pork mixed with oats and, in the case of black pudding, pork blood. They’re delicious.

Related to this first, old word—the Middle English poding perhaps having derived from Low German puddek (sausage) or puddig (swollen)—was a sausage stuffing for roast meat (Shakespeare wrote about “that roasted … ox with the pudding in his belly”**) and from there you get a slang usage of pudding that means, in England, guts. I’d like to see that in a sentence. Or maybe not.

Second …

I am not sure how we moved from meats to sweets, but that’s what happened. The second meaning in my American dictionary is four-part:

  • A boiled or baked soft food usually with a cereal base, like corn pudding or bread pudding, eaten as a main course or a side dish; sometimes, long ago, called porridge.
  • A dessert of a soft, spongy, or thick creamy consistency, like chocolate pudding or rice or tapioca pudding. This is the sort of pudding Americans think of first, I believe.
  • An unsweetened dish often containing suet or having a suet crust and originally boiled in a bag but now often steamed or baked in a mold, like a kidney pudding. You would often cut it with a knife, rather than spoon it.
  • Something that resembles a pudding, like a pudding bolster (a long thick pillow; looks like sausage) or more poetically, anything churned up or mixed up, like clouds or tilled soil—though I don’t think the latter is particularly common.

The differences here can be boiled down to milk puddings and cake puddings.

An Aside …

I emphasize that these definitions are from my American dictionary because M-W makes absolutely no allowance for the British use of pudding, which has two meanings, as best I can tell:

  • It’s a generic word for what Americans call dessert, i.e., that sweet course served at the end of the meal.
  • A very specific cake-like dessert, such as Christmas pudding or something like (yes, Virginia, it’s true) figgy pudding.

The latter usage is related to the savory (unsweet) pudding mentioned above, in that it is firm and cakelike. I got to experience it when the Boy and I visited an English friend one Christmas. We had a very traditional English Christmas dinner (including, appropriately to this post, Yorkshire pudding, which is nothing like anything I have described so far). And then we had dessert: eight weeks in the making, the oh-so traditional “Christmas pudding”—which you may also know as plum pudding or figgy pudding. Americans might call it fruitcake, and it’s similar (an Irish tea brack would be even closer in spirit), though it is made in a mold and steamed rather than baked. Doused in brandy and set alight, it was a spectacular conclusion to the meal.

Another Aside …

Merriam Webster suggested I “compare” hasty pudding (cornmeal mush); Indian pudding (cornmeal mush with butter, molasses, and spices); Yorkshire pudding (batter of eggs, flour, and milk, baked in meat drippings); and plum pudding (bread crumbs, raisins, currants, suet, eggs, and spices, boiled or steamed).

It also suggested I have a look at:

  • Pudding grass: a pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) formerly used to flavor stuffing for roast meat.
  • Pudding stone: conglomerate, from 1752.
  • Pudding time: 1 archaic : dinnertime (“as it was pudding time with us, our visitor was invited to sit and eat”), and 2 archaic : an auspicious moment (“here he comes in pudding time to resolve the question”).
  • Bag pudding: a dessert pudding boiled or steamed in a bag, from 1598.
  • Batter pudding: an unsweetened pudding of flour, eggs, and milk or cream baked or boiled (for example, Yorkshire pudding).
  • Black pudding: blood sausage, from the fifteenth century.
  • Blood pudding: blood sausage.
  • Cabinet pudding: a pudding of bread or cake, candied or dried fruit, milk, and eggs often molded and usually served hot with a tart sauce, from 1821.

I love the word pudding so much I’d love to see a revival of pudding time to replace, say, the knick of time. Let’s work on that!

Third …

Even M-W’s third definition has a connection to food, because it describes something that looks like a sausage: a fender made of rope yarn or canvas attached to the stern of a boat or ship—in other words, a boat bumper. :)

Finally …

You’ve been waiting for this one, I’m sure: pudding can also mean “inherent quality; ability to measure up to expectations.” As in, “He proved his pudding with that magna cum laude.” Or, of course, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

This little saying goes way back to the fourteenth century; by the 1600s it was appearing in proverb books. In Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes wrote, “You will see it when you fry the eggs,” which was translated in one 1701 version as, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” These days, we often say, “The proof is in the pudding” (it dates to the 1920s) and mean something was worth it because of its discernible quality. But unless the shortened phrase is in your frame of reference—my parents used it—you won’t quite know what it means.

And there’s your pudding lesson for today. :)

* Not a pouring custard, though.
** Henry IV.

Tweet: What’s in a name? That which we call a pudding …
Tweet: The meaning of this word depends on where you’re from!

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  1. E McD says:

    I’ve got to write “pudding time” into a story some day. That’s rich! :-D