Swiss rolls

It’s a rainy day today and I’m having a break drinking Earl Grey with a slice of chocolate Swiss roll. I love the BBC show The Great British Bake Off, so inspired by their Swiss Rolls last week I made one for myself on the weekend (if you want to see my post about it, you can on my crafting and baking blog here). I was going to write a little post on baking word etymologies, but then realised how many words just the Swiss roll has to describe it in English.

My first attempt at a chocolate Swiss roll

My first attempt at a chocolate Swiss roll

The name Swiss roll has its first recorded use in 1897 and the name might have originated in England. It’s an odd name choice as the Swiss roll isn’t from Switzerland. The OED describes it as “a ‘sweet’ consisting of sponge cake rolled up with a layer of jam”, although I’d probably use it to describe any sweet sponge roll around a filling and a search online seems to confirm this more general use.

The oldest name I could find for it in English is roulade, which was first recorded in English in 1702 and came into the language from French. This is a more general term and refers to savoury and sweet rolls. Apparently it was originally filled with meat.

If a Swiss roll is filled with jam I grow up calling it a (jam) roly-poly. But it seems that this term specifically refers to rolls made of suet and served hot. Roly-poly has its first recorded use in 1821 and according to the OED is also in extended use for other sorts of filling.

The word has other meanings, such as used to describe a plump person. While I imagine the pudding’s name came from the way it’s made by rolling up a filling, I’d quite like to think it was called roly-poly because of its satisfactory plump appearance! The roly part of the word likely comes from the verb to roll, meaning to sway. Poly doesn’t seem to have an inherent meaning and the OED says that apparently roly-poly seems to be formed from a reduplication of roll (with the -y suffix) with a p substituting for the r. In all the historical spelling variants listed (rowle-powle, roley-poley, etc) roly and poly are spelt the same except for the initial consonant. However the OED notes that in the first sense of roly-poly (a now obsolete meaning referring to a rascal) poly could come from the word poll (the part of the head on which the hair grows).

In America a Swiss roll seems to be commonly called a jelly roll. This term dates from at least 1895 – around the same time as Swiss roll – and is still used in America. Jelly roll is also now sexual slang, apparently. I’m guessing that the term jelly roll comes from the common jam filling, jelly being the American term for jam.

If made from chocolate and specifically eaten near Christmas it can be called a Yule log, whether decorated like a log or not. I’d also know it as a Bûche de Noël.

In this list there seems to be French-English alternatives: Swiss roll/roulade, Yule log/Bûche de Noël. I once talked to a French woman about what we traditionally ate at Christmas in our countries. She referred to something she said translated as ‘English cake’ (or something similar) and described it as a Swiss roll. I can’t seem to find anything about this online so I’m not sure if we’d become lost in translation, but I’d like to find out if this was true. With our borrowed French terms it would be strange if in France they actually called it something else!


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