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Sprinkles: What's in a Name?
Sprinkles, jimmies, nonpareils—they all refer to the same colorful dessert topping, but what you call them might differ based on where you're from. Take a gander as to how the well-beloved treat grew to be so contentious.
As far as dessert toppings go, sprinkles are ubiquitous. The colorful, confetti-like candies—made with bits of sugar, cornstarch, vegetable oil, and food coloring—can be found across the globe in various incarnations. While in the US they're sometimes known as jimmies or simply as sprinkles, the French call them nonpareils ("without equal") and the Dutch, hagelslag (or "hail").
Though sprinkles are found around the world atop everything from ice-cream cones to cookies to doughnuts, their origins are shrouded in mystery. According to some accounts, sprinkles were first created and used by 18th century French confectioners to embellish desserts. Just Born, the American company best known for Peeps and Mike and Ikes, claims to have both invented and named the tiny treats sometime after 1923 and dubbed them “jimmies” after an employee at the time. But, as the Boston Globe pointed out in a 2011 story, this claim seems “dubious”: newspaper archives from 1921, before Just Born’s inception, clearly have ads hawking chocolate sprinkles.
Even the origin of the term jimmies is unclear and may have preceded Just Born. As the Globe reported, newspaper ads, such as one for a Pittsburgh bakery, referenced jimmies as early as the 1930s, but the earliest photographs available of Just Born's version show the product can bearing a zip code—meaning it had to have been no earlier than 1963 (the year the USPS adopted zip codes). There was once a widespread rumor that jimmies was a racist term, one that referred to the Jim Crow laws, but this has since been dispelled by several sources, including David Wilton, author of Word Myths. The New York Times’ Ben Zimmer posits that “jimmies” originated as a diminutive of jim-jams, 16th century slang for little doodads.
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