The Great Canadian Baking Show and the 'Biscuit/Cookie' Question

by Jet McCullough
December 9, 2020

The unique character of Canadian English vocabulary is apparent in The Great Canadian Baking Show. This reality show baking competition has a choice to make regarding baking terms: whether to use British terms, as does the original series upon which the Canadian show is based, North American terms (those common to the US and Canada), or Canadianisms, terms specific to Canada. As the show reveals, a fascinating aspect of Canadian English is that it blends the three.

One instance of this vocabulary mixture will jump out to any Canadian viewer: the use of “biscuit” in the “Biscuits and Bars” week of baking challenges. The term is straightforward enough, being transplanted directly from “Biscuit Week” in The Great British Bake Off, and is used in both series as in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s second definition of the word: “A small baked unleavened cake, typically crisp, crumbly, flat, and sweet, and usually made from a mixture of flour, sugar, butter, and flavourings.”

This term has a complex pattern of usage in Canada, however, which is implicitly acknowledged in season 2, episode 2 (S2:E2), when host Julia Chan introduces the theme of the week as “biscuits and bars, also known as cookies and squares.” This alternate term, “cookie,” has enough currency in Canada that the term "biscuit" needs such a disclaimer, lest a Canadian baker or viewer misunderstand the challenge. In fact, "cookie" appears to be the dominant term in Canada and North America broadly, according to The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD), which marks the word “N. Amer.” (“cookie, n.1.”), and the OED, which notes that “In North America … cookie is the usual term for the flat, sweet, crisp or chewy items known outside of North America as biscuits” (“cookie, n.1.”).

This complexity is also partially caused by the prevalence of the alternate, North American meaning of the word "biscuit", “a small round savoury cake of bread, similar to a scone in appearance, and typically made from a mixture of flour, fat, and a raising agent” (“biscuit, n.1.b.”, OED). The COD points to the term “tea biscuit,” which it labels as a Canadianism, for this meaning (“biscuit, n.2.,” “tea biscuit”). The COD also indicates the regional origins of the relevant meanings of "cookie" and "biscuit" in each word's definition: "biscuit" can mean “Brit. a cookie,” and "cookie" can refer to “N. Amer. a small sweet biscuit.”

It appears that "biscuit" has the potential to refer to two things in Canada, but what about "cookie"? We have the COD definition, “a small, sweet biscuit,” and this is how the term is used in The Great Canadian Baking Show. What does it mean elsewhere in the world? There is evidence of this North American meaning of the word having reached other varieties of English, but only in a specific sense. In The Great Comic Relief Bake Off, a spin-off series of The Great British Bake Off, there is discussion of whether contestant Claudia Winkleman’s chocolate bakes “snap” or are “cookie-like,” and after the judges pull one apart and see that it is soft and not snappy, they say, “It’s a cookie” (S1:E4). Indeed, the North American term, "cookie", seems to be used in otherwise biscuit-dominated sweet bake contexts to mainly refer to the soft cookie/biscuit: “Outside of North America cookie is now also used to refer to sweet biscuits having a fairly soft, chewy texture and to crumbly biscuits containing chocolate chips” (“cookie, n.1.”, OED).

We have a clear picture, then: "cookie" and "biscuit" can refer to the same thing in Canada, but "cookie" is dominant for the sweet, flat item, and "biscuit" can also refer to the North American biscuit. The way the Canadian series has accommodated for this vocabulary quirk is to keep the usage in line with the British original, while also accommodating the North American term.