A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What are sweetbreads really?

June 19, 1987

Dear Cecil:

We were all sitting around lunch the other day and the question of what sweetbreads are came up. I voted for the thymus gland, but I was tremendously outnumbered by votes for the pancreas. Other suggestions included the brain, salivary gland, and even some sort of reproductive organ. I won't comment on the mental status of the person giving the latter suggestion, but you may feel free to do so.

Dear M.:

Boy, nothing like a little light conversation to improve the digestion. As it happens, you and the pancreas bloc are both right. There are two kinds of sweetbreads: stomach sweetbreads (also known as heart or belly sweetbreads), which are an animal's pancreas, and neck (AKA throat or gullet) sweetbreads, an animal's thymus gland. (The animal in question can be a hog or calf or just about any other large mammal, I gather.) They're called sweetbreads for the obvious reason that if you called them thymus glands or whatever you couldn't give the damn things away. The art of euphemism goes back a long way.

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