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The word

The jimmies story

Can an ice cream topping be racist?

By Jan Freeman
March 13, 2011

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When I mentioned jimmies, the long-established localism for chocolate sprinkles, in a recent column, it was just as a passing example; I didn’t mean to reopen an etymological can of worms. But a few days later, along came an e-mail from Ron Slate of Milton, repeating the rumor that has dogged our candy terminology. “My mother told us never to use the word ‘jimmies’ because it is an epithet for African-Americans,” he wrote. “So we always said ‘sprinkles.’ ”

Even before that tale got abroad, jimmies was trailing clouds of factoid and fancy. Its origins are murky, so — like “the whole nine yards” and “the real McCoy” — it attracts just-so stories, some plausible and some less so. At the “Boston English” section of the website UniversalHub, commenters will tell you that jimmies are named for the Jimmy Fund, the children’s cancer charity; for a kid named Jimmy who got them on his ice cream as a birthday treat (“they’re Jimmy’s”); for a mayor named Jim Conelson, or a Jimmy O’Connell who was extra generous with sprinkles; and for a guy who (maybe) ran the chocolate-sprinkles machine at the Just Born candy factory.

Of all these theories, only the last is even remotely plausible. Just Born, the candy company that still provides us with our marshmallow Peeps and Mike and Ikes, was founded in Brooklyn in 1923, according to its official history, though patriarch Sam Born had already come up with candy innovations like a machine to put sticks into lollipops.

The company’s website claims that “jimmies, the chocolate grains sprinkled on ice cream, were invented at Just Born, and named after the employee who made them.” (Company spokesmen have mentioned a Jimmy Bartholomew, but his existence is unverified.) But company histories often include a fudge factor, and this claim of invention seems dubious: Chocolate sprinkles, so called, were already popular in the 1920s, the newspaper archives show. The Nashua, N.H., Telegraph is advertising a treat made with chocolate sprinkles in 1921, before Just Born was born.

Later that decade, the sprinkles show up in Ottawa and Spokane newspapers, and by 1927, Sunshine is producing a Chocolate Sprinkle cookie topped with marshmallow and sprinkles. (There’s even a laxative consisting of “tasty Swiss-like milk chocolate sprinkles”; a 1928 ad in the Pittsburgh Press says it has given “Thousands of Pennsylvanians...the Glorious Complexion of a Regulated Body.”)

Just Born may still deserve credit for coining jimmies, but that claim remains to be proven. The company’s website has a photo of two large cans of its product, one labeled “chocolate grains” and the other “jimmies” — but the jimmies can bears a Zip code, dating it to 1963 at the earliest. That’s decades after the earliest print evidence for jimmies: a December 1930 ad the Pittsburgh Press in which a local food emporium offers sponge cake “with creamy butter frosting and chocolate jimmies,” adding helpfully: “In case you don’t know what jimmies are...tiny chocolate candies.” This suggests that the term was new (to Pittsburgh, at least), but it offers no clue to its coinage.

Whatever the source of the name, though, nothing in the record suggests that jimmies was ever racially tinged. If it had been, it’s not likely anyone would have been coy about it, as racist brand names and artwork were unremarkable in the 1930s and ’40s. Katharine Weber, whose novel “True Confections” is set in a family candy company, blogs about some of them at Staircase Writing: The Abba-Zaba wrappers with their smiling cartoon savages, Heide’s “Black Kids” candy, and Whitman’s infamous Pickaninny Peppermints, a brand that persisted until Thurgood Marshall, then a young civil rights lawyer, took on the company in the early 1940s.

So where did the “racist” rumor come from? It’s possible that people old enough to remember the candies of the ’40s, like Ron Slate’s mother, wrongly assumed that “jimmies” was also a slur. But there’s no evidence that this notion was ever widespread: David Wilton, who investigated jimmies in his 2004 book, “Word Myths,” found no record of it before 1997.

If the idea hasn’t died out, that’s surely because it’s so hard to prove a negative. But as Wilton notes, “when one would normally expect to find evidence, its absence can be revealing.” And the absence of evidence here is striking; nobody warning against jimmies cites examples of its use as a slur; there’s just a vague hint that it might have some connection to “Jim Crow.”

In this instance, though, the facts may finally prevail. Yes, you can find fictional etymologies of jimmies on the Web, but the “racist” accusation doesn’t seem to be catching on. And what we do know about jimmies is widely available: in Wilton’s book, in David Feldman’s “Why Do Pirates Love Parrots?” (2006), and on the Web at Snopes.com, StraightDope.com, Barry Popik’s The Big Apple, and Wikipedia. So be of good cheer, jimmies fans everywhere; you may feel guilty about the calories in those chocolate tidbits, but there’s no shame in the name.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).

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