A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "spotted dick"?

August 27, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

Can you shed any light on the etymology of "Spotted Dick"? It's a British concoction, a steamed, log-shaped suet pudding studded with currants, hence the "spotted." But why the "dick"?

The first explanation that leaps to mind seems highly unlikely, but I haven't been able to find a detailed and credible account of how this venerable dessert really did get its name. The best I found in over 40 pages of Google results was someone who thinks he read somewhere that the words "dick," "dog" and "duff" when applied to puddings were all derivatives of the word "dough." OK, "duff" and "dog" seem pretty plausible linguistic mutations, but even allowing for strange regional British accents, "dick" seems a little bit of a stretch. My British parents are also at a loss to explain.

We just tackled the origin of "Dick" as a nickname and a few other usages — a riding whip, an apron, abbreviation for "dictionary," a policeman, a declaration, and (of course), the penis.

With all these varied usages, you got a problem with "dick" being also derived from "pudding"? My sources all pretty much agree with the derivation, without being specific how. However, I can see "pudding" become "puddink" becoming "puddick" and then just "dick."

The word "dick" has appeared in any number of strange places. Around the 1840s, "dick" was used to mean a type of hard cheese; when treacle sauce was added, it became "treacle dick", and finally when currants or raisins were added (looking like little spots), the "spotted dick" was born.

The earliest recipes for spotted dick are from 1847. For non-British readers, "spotted dick" is a boiled suet pudding, with bits of dried fruit (usually raisins or currants) that (as already noted) look like little spots.

The Oxford Companion to Food comments that, strictly speaking, "spotted dick" is made by taking a flat sheet, spreading sugar and raisins on it, then rolling it up. A similar dessert is "spotted dog," a plain cylinder of suet paste with the raisins and currants and sugar stuck into it, so that the spots are visible on the outside. Both spotted dick and spotted dog were traditionally boiled (or even steamed) in a cloth, but nowadays they are usually baked.

The dessert is slightly different in Ireland. In Ireland in the late 1800s, the tradition of yeast-bread manufacture was not strong, so most breads were raised with bicarbonate of soda and an acid, rather than with yeast, and thus called soda breads. Thus, the spotted dick in Ireland is sweet soda bread, with sugar, currants, and raisins, and it's also called the spotted dog or railway cake.

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