“Chocolate Bars” and “Coffee Cakes” in The Great Canadian Baking Show

by Jet McCullough
January 14, 2021

Watching The Great Canadian Baking Show through the lens of Canadian English demands inquiry into Canadian usage regarding baking terms, and the names of relevant foods, sweets, and bakes. In the previous two articles we explored the blend of Canadian, American, and British terms used in show, an exploration we will continue here with two new terms: "chocolate bar" and "coffee cake."  

Consider this factoid from the opening of episode six, season two: “In 1947, hundreds of Canadian children went on strike because the price of a chocolate bar went from five cents to eight cents.” The term used here, “chocolate bar,” seems a common lexical marker of Canadian English. A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles notes that the term “is often contrasted with ‘candy bar’, the more popular variant in the US” (“chocolate bar,” DCHP-2). The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD) also notes the American (US) nature of “candy bar” and implies “chocolate bar” to be a Canadian default in its definition of “candy bar”: “noun esp. US = chocolate bar.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), contrasting slightly with these sources, marks “candy bar” as a North American term, though not strictly a US one (“candy, n.2.”), while “chocolate bar” carries no region marker in either the OED or the COD

In noting the difference in usage between these terms, linguist Charles Boberg argues that “chocolate bar” is a Canadianism, used almost exclusively in Canada, though this claim is questioned in the DCHP entry which suggests that the term is common in the United Kingdom (UK) as well. The use of “candy bar” in the US makes sense given the broader definition of “candy” in North America, where the word can refer to not only crystallized sugar treats but other confectionery, including chocolate, a usage attributed to the US by the OED (“candy, n.2.”), and to North America broadly by the COD (“candy, n.1.”). Despite this usage of “candy” not appearing to be necessarily limited to the US as opposed to Canada, it seems that “chocolate bar” is the more common term north of the border.

Another discussion of differences among regional vocabularies, this time between North America and Britain, arises from the term “coffee cake,” the signature challenge seen in season three, episode four. The meaning of the term “coffee cake” appears to vary across the Atlantic: the OED says that in American (US) English the term refers to a specific “breakfast bread of yeast dough,” and aside from this regional meaning, it otherwise refers to “a cake with coffee flavouring” (“coffee, n.”), the meaning more common in the UK. The COD notes a similar regionality to the term’s meaning, marking “coffee cake,” in the sense of “a type of cake or sweet bread topped or filled with cinnamon sugar, often containing nuts or raisins,” as North American. The Great Canadian Baking Show follows this North American usage, noting that “the coffee cake is the perfect partner with coffee and tea” and defining the cake by its dense, moist texture and streusel topping, rather than coffee flavouring.

We have one case, then, where the series goes for a Canadian usage rather than an American (US) one, and one case where it goes for a North American (both Canada and US) usage over a British one. This combination reflects the mix in Canadian English broadly. In just these two terms, we see a microcosm of the divergence within Canadian vocabulary amongst American, British, and Canadian terms.