“England and America are two countries divided by a common language,” George Bernard Shaw is alleged to have said.
When it comes to treats, we Americans wonder what in the world Brits are doing referring to cookies as biscuits. Etymologically speaking (the past participle of eat being "done et," you can see the importance food has played in the history of words), biscuit derives from the Latin biscotus, literally meaning twice-baked. Some dictionaries define biscuit's roots as “seaman's bread.”
The English, being nothing more than wafflers, often couch their terminology to differentiate between a hard and soft biscuit. The soft, squishy, perhaps even gooey biscuit of the United Kingdom is closer to what we Yankees call a cookie. The word cookie comes from the Dutch koekje, which translates as little cake.
Of course, when I wrote "United Kingdom" readers must keep in mind that a significant number of Scots view themselves as independent from England. Therefore, it should not throw anyone into too much of a dither to find out that the Scots are referring to something more like a bun when the word cookie is dropped (hopefully onto a sheet to go into the oven for ten to twelve minutes).
Then there are scones. Some Americans (not all, mind you) confronted by an English scone might refer to it as a biscuit. What Americans see as scones might make an Englishman throw up his hands in despair. And if we venture into mentioning Scone in Scotland we are in an entirely different realm, one of politics and history (there's an endearing little 2008 film about the stealing of the Scone of Scotland entitled Stone of Destiny).
Speaking of history, but not too far back, in the 1950s both my parents were active leaders in Mendocino's Spartan 4-H Club. My mother often encouraged boys in 4-H (Head, Heart, Hands, and Health) to learn some basic cooking skills. To win the rougher gender over she usually started with a lesson in easy cookie baking. So it was in such a course in the mid-50s that Margaret Macdonald showed her 4-H boys how to make simple oatmeal cookies. A lad named Michael Maclean slumped his shoulders and shook his head. While the other boys started in mixing ingredients, my mother took Michael aside to inquire about his sad outlook on oatmeal cookie creation. “You don't understand, Mrs. Macdonald, we've been living on pret' near nothing else for the better part of the year."
It was true that Michael's father had been injured at the outset of that year, an injury that ended his chances at meaningful employment. How utterly dependent the family became on a solitary sack of oats is now lost to history, but another Mendocino Coast native put the dilemma to song some years later. It is reprinted here for your enjoyment with permission of the author, if not the Maclean family.
The following is best sung loudly, especially at the chorus.
PRESBYTERIAN LUMBERJACK BLUES
Back in the year of fifty an’ three
big truck rig rolled over and crushed pappy’s knee.
So all winter long, weren’t nothin’ to eat,
‘ceptin’ what come out of a hundred pound sack.
Weren’t the kind of folks to beg, borrow or steal,
so all we ever et was Quaker Oatmeal.
Oatmeal for breakfast
and oatmeal for lunch.
When you gets thirsty
ya drinks oatmeal punch.
Gonna kill me a Quaker
if it’s the last thing I do
‘cause a feller gets tired of oatmeal stew.
(Repeat second verse/chorus as needed)
Previously copyrighted as The Oatmeal Song or Maclean Family Lament.