Who can revise ‘candy’? The lexicographer can…

Who can revise ‘candy’? The lexicographer can…

2020 has been a strange year, all round, and it seems odd to think that back in January I was sitting down in the office to revise the candy range, making periodic trips to the OUP shop in the name of research. The entries in this range had been written in the early days of the OED (or NED, as it was then), and a lot has changed in the last 130 years.

While we’ve revised all three candy homonyms (the earliest relating to the city of Heraklion in Crete, the latest to a unit of volume or quantity used in South Asia) and the surrounding entries, perhaps the biggest change to the range concerns candy, n.2, in which we have drawn out the sense most common in North America today. Previously part of the current sense 1, within a discussion of ‘crystallized sugar’ (NED editors noted ‘In U.S. used more widely than in Great Britain, including toffy, and the like’), we’ve split out the most familiar modern meaning to constitute its own distinct sense, first seen in the early nineteenth century:

Any confectionery; sweets and chocolates. Also occasionally: a sweet or chocolate.

Since then, as an element in compound words, candy has given rise to several tasty-sounding treats, many of them particularly popular at certain times of year. At Halloween, Americans pour candy cornpieces of candy shaped like a kernel of corn and striped orange, yellow, and white – into the buckets of trick-or-treaters, as they have since at least 1898; and the candy apple is a fall favourite in North America, eaten as early as 1871 (and called a toffee apple in some other parts of the world – in the UK they’re particularly associated with Bonfire Night on November 5th). At Christmas, we decorate our trees (and fill our stomachs) with candy canes. Our first recorded use of candy cane is from a short story published in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine in 1866. A sworn bachelor admits to his friend that he has fallen in love, but that the woman of his affections has gone missing. At the same time, he laments the shape of his (traditional, rather than Christmas) stockings, and places an advert in the paper for a reward to anyone who can knit him a pair that fit. You may see where this is going… When a parcel is sent to him containing stockings that fit him perfectly, he asks the delivery boy who made them, and:

Pointing to some mammoth candy canes which were displayed in a shop window across the street, he said..‘My little dear, just take me to the young lady, and you shall have those and enough candy to make you sick for a month.’                      

Needless to say, the ‘young lady’ is the woman he loves, forced to move away by the death of her father. The tale has an appropriately Christmassy ending.

And speaking of Christmas… Unlike 2020, when we may struggle to meet our loved ones, a popular activity between Christmas and New Year in mid-nineteenth century America was a candy pulling or candy pull: a social gathering for young people at which taffy, or occasionally other confectionery, was made and eaten. Taffy is made by twisting and pulling a sweet mixture until it becomes tough and light-coloured, and can then be twisted into shapes. Perhaps I will take my New Year’s resolution from the character in Fred Gipson’s 1949 Hound-Dog Man mentioned in the quotation paragraph, who ‘packed his party clothes along wherever he went; he never could tell when he’d run onto a dance or a candy pulling.’

If making your own candy doesn’t appeal, there is no small choice of places and people from whom you can buy it ready-made. As well as the more usual candy shops and candy stalls, our revised entry covers the now-historical candy butcher: a person who sells candy or other refreshments in a train, circus, theatre, etc. (This specific American use of butcher – sense 5 in OED’s entry for that noun – went on to be used with other modifying words, as in train butcher and lemonade butcher.)

Selling candy isn’t all sweet, however. Let’s take a look at candy man, n.3. In Northumberland and Durham in the mid-nineteenth century, a series of miners’ strikes led to whole families being removed from their homes by bailiffs employed temporarily for the purpose. When these bailiffs arrived at the miners’ cottages, some were recognized as itinerant sellers of dandy candy (brightly coloured or fancy sweets) from Newcastle. The term candy man was subsequently used as derogatory name for bailiffs. (More recently, and more widely, it has also been used as a slang term for a drug dealer.)

Many of the words in the range derive from certain qualities of candy that have been extended to uses outside of food. For instance, in North America a candy striper is a volunteer, typically a young woman, who assists staff in a hospital, so named with reference to the pink-and-white-striped pinafores typically worn by such volunteers. More often, however, words relate to our love of candy’s sweetness: we can candy coat bad news to make it more palatable, or candy over something to make it superficially more agreeable. Since as early as the 1950s we have described things that are superficially attractive but have no real value or integrity as candyfloss or, in the U.S., cotton candy.

In its more familiar sense – a mass of fluffy spun sugar, typically pink or blue in colour – cotton candy antedates candyfloss by 15 years, our first recorded use being from J. H. Wilson’s 1889 page-turner Nearly Three Hundred Ways to dress Show Windows:

The grocer can put in packages of tea, sugar,..and hot pepper..or cotton candy to cause a little fun.     

The shopkeeper deciding on his window displays must have felt like a kid in a candy store with so many options to choose from!

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