Taking the Biscuit

Language professionals are often amazed by the similarities that can be found between languages. As we are all aware, groups of languages belong to language families and therefore invariably share the same characteristics and/or structures. It is arguably easier, for example, to translate French into Italian than French into Polish, or, to take it a step further, much easier to translate Polish into Russian than, let us say, Polish into Inuktitut or Xhosa.

However easy it is translating between languages within the same language family (for example, Slavonic to Slavonic, Germanic to Germanic or even Indo-European to Indo-European), there is one imp of a problem that is forever the bane of translators and editors. This is, of course, the infamous false friend, faux ami or fałszywy przyjaciel. Examples abound: preservative in English versus preserwatywa (condom) in Polish, or čerstvý (fresh) in Czech versus czerstwy (stale) in Polish.

A fascinating example of this is the English word biscuit which means different things to different people, depending on which side of the Atlantic one resides. The two most common definitions of biscuit are: (i) British: “small, flat sweet cake” (known as cookie in the US) and (ii) American: “small round bread leavened with soda”. We can also add to this two definitions were are less common: (iii) “pale brown colour” and (iv) “fired piece of unglazed ceramic ware” (usually bisque).

This interesting bifurcation of meaning (British versus American) can be traced to the ambiguous nature of the word’s etymology. Biscuit stems from the 16th century word bisket which in turn can be traced back to the Middle English word bysquyte. This stems from the Old French word bescuit which literally means “twice cooked”, which itself was altered under the influence of the Old Italian biscotto which meant “twice baked” (which is rooted in the Medieval Latin bis coctus. The word’s derivation is fascinating.

The Polish biskwit has a similar cognate line and stems from the French biscuit. Interestingly, the word is a synonym of biszkopt which can also be traced back to the Medieval Latin bis coctus and was originally adopted into Polish as biskokt and then later biszkokt. What is fascinating about this word is its meaning, which is slightly different from the English (British and American).

The Polish biskwit or biszkopt might well be translated into English as a sponge cake, ladyfinger or Génoise (cake) (not to be confused with pain de Gênes, which is an almond cake) and has little to do with the British biscuit and nothing in common with the American biscuit. False friends may well be confusing but are extremely interesting to the language professional.

13 Responses to “Taking the Biscuit”

  1. Marinus Kruissen Says:

    The Dutch, “beschuit”, is a dry, twice baked, bread, used as shipboard provision in the sailing era. Therefore “scheepsbeschuit”
    provided sustenance to fanous Dutch sailors.

    But it is not a bisquit in the English/American sense, as it is clearly bread.

  2. Yana Says:

    Sometimes the are such differences inside the language used in different cities of a country. For example, in Russian the most common case is Moscow and Saint-Petersburg words.

    Here is the explanation of how Moscovites understand the Saint-Petersburg words:
    Moscow – St-Pet.
    батон (big loaf) – булка (small loaf)
    подъезд (entrance in a block of flats) – парадная (front-door)

  3. Anna Kwiecień Says:

    Hi everyone fascinated by biscuits!
    As far as a “biscuit” is concerned, I found another interesting definition in the Die Casting Glossary (for those who are not familiar with casting, die-casting means: odlewanie kokilowe, which means in turn :-): odlewanie do form metalowych, zwanych kokilami)
    “Biscuit – excess of ladled metal remaining in the shot sleeve of a cold chamber die casting machine. It is part of the cast shot and is removed from the die with the casting.”

    “The Polish biskwit or biszkopt might well be translated into English as a (…) ladyfinger (what a delicious, tempting name, especially for cannibals🙂

    “False friends may well be confusing but are extremely interesting to the language professional.”
    Definitely, not only to professionals but also to students. I find false friends really fascinating. One of my favourite false friends are obscure – obskurny, debility – debilizm, or antics – antyki.

    In addition, a little off topic, I would like to say a few words on “arguably”. The article says, “It is arguably easier, for example, to translate French into Italian (…)”

    To my surprise we do not use “arguably” to say that sth is rather improbable. On the contrary, we use it to say that sth is highly probable. What is more, the word “arguable” has two quite opposite meanings – what a surprising language English is!

    arguably – zapewne, możliwe
    used when giving your opinion to say that there are good reasons why something might be true: Senna was arguably the greatest racing driver of all time.

    BUT:
    arguable – sporny, dyskusyjny
    1 not certain, or not definitely true or correct, and therefore easy to doubt [= debatable]:
    Whether or not Webb is the best person for the job is arguable.

    BUT again:
    2 it is arguable that
    used in order to give good reasons why something might be true:
    It’s arguable that the legislation has had little effect on young people’s behaviour

    How interesting!

  4. Laurent Says:

    Interesting. But why would you say the French “biscuit” (or its daddy “bescuit”) is “twice cooked” whereas the Italian biscotto is “twice baked” ? Seems to me “cuit” and “cotto” are no “falsi amici” and are both cooked !

  5. Magdalena Styś Says:

    This article brings to my mind my French classes when it is often the case that my teacher asks me how do I know the new words from the coursebook and I reply that they’re almost the same in English:)

  6. Magdalena Matulka Says:

    Thanks for the great article!

    It’s surprising how much different languages have in common. I find it very easy to learn Norwegian if I have already learnt German and English. It’s really easy to find similar words which mean the same and look very alike, e.g. English ‘cat’, Norwegian ‘n katt’, German ‘die Katze’. Of course we have to be aware of false friends e.g. English word ‘actual’ is properly translated into German as ‘wirklich’ not as ‘aktuell’ which means ‘current, up-to-date’, but still without any doubts it’s much more easier to translate and learn languages from the same language family.


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