A recurring theme at this weekend’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was the way food words are passed off to other languages and acquire new meanings there. One of the more straightforward of these is “brioche”. In France – as, indeed, in most places – it is a yeast bread made with eggs and milk, with a richly golden brown crust. It is the baked good which Marie Antoinette supposedly mentioned when, in translation, she said, “Let them eat cake.”

In Italy, however, it means a kind of croissant, usually one filled with jam. It is a morning snack commonly available in bars and pastry shops. The dictionary at Garzanti Linguistica translates the French word “brioche” first as “(cuc.) brioche, brioscia (panino dolce di pasta lievitata con burro e uova)”. In other words, although it starts with “brioche”, it must elaborate further, calling it croissant-like before giving it a recipe for clarity. The definition for “brioscia”, in turn, explains that Italian croissants differ from French ones in both shape and type of dough.

Sicilian brioches are different again, more like the usual French ones, but with further locally-integral variations, such as candied lemon peel. (To be clear, there are variations on it in France too.) In Italian, it’s all good, so long as one likes sweet baked goods.

In French, colloquially, it’s also a word for stomach, as in, “prendre une brioche”, to get a potbelly. Another variant, from the Wiktionary, offers “avoir une brioche au four” as “to have a bun in the oven” in the English colloquial sense. Older dictionaries (1922, plus Garzanti Linguistica) have it as slang too: when masculine, it’s a “mistake”. Given its lack of presence in more modern sources, I wonder if it’s now old-fashioned and has died out. The current online Larousse dictionary doesn’t include it; nor do the first few slang dictionaries I checked.

The OED puts its earliest attested use in English at 1826, when, delightfully, in Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village (Vol. II, p. 298) the narrator observes that her cousin “left it to my good senses to discover the merits of brioche and marrangles and eau de groseille”, beginning the process of teaching the twelve-year-old viewpoint character to find learning French a worthwhile project, and not a mistake at all.

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*© S. Worthen 2009