Having customers order a ‘toasted teacake’ in the West Yorkshire sandwich shop where I worked as a teenager wasn’t unusual, yet even this simple request always necessitated a follow-up question: ‘plain or currant?’.
While to me a ‘teacake’ naturally implies a plain, savoury bread roll, most of the country outside West Yorkshire believes a teacake to be a sweet bread laden with plump currants. I’d say, logically, that that should be known as a ‘currant teacake’, but what can you do?
Everyone in the UK has an opinion on just what to call what is perhaps the most inoffensive foodstuff known to man – the humble, ubiquitous bread roll; round and savoury with soft, white innards and an often floury exterior.
A study conducted by the University of Manchester identified seven terms used around the UK for the generic bread roll, mostly found in Northern England, or, in the case of ‘bap’, Scotland. Other variations are ‘batch’, which turned up with most regularity in Coventry and Liverpool; the Lancashire ‘barm’; and the West Yorkshire ‘teacake’. Oldham got in on the action with ‘muffin’, while ‘bun’ and ‘cob’ are more generally used in north-east England and the Midlands respectively.
Other sources often throw even more intensely regional options into the mix, like north-east England’s ‘stottie’, Lancashire’s ‘oven bottoms’, and the Leeds-area ‘scufflers’ or ‘breadcakes’ (the aforementioned barm sometimes comes suffixed with ‘cake’, too) – although the true ‘bread roll’ legitimacy of some of these is hotly debated. Regardless, there are thought to be some 20 vocabulary variations on the neutral ‘bread roll’, with some more widely used and understood than others depending exactly where in the UK you find yourself.
There are thought to be some 20 vocabulary variations on the neutral ‘bread roll’
It’s no wonder then that ordering anything involving a bread roll outside your bread-name bubble can be so confusing. For example, asking for that ‘teacake’ and not specifying ‘currant’ in my tiny West Yorkshire shop would have got you a satisfyingly warm and buttery bread roll, albeit sans fruit.
And sometimes even the sandwich shop itself reflects the regional differences in doughy vocabulary. “If you go to Nottingham or Derby, then you don’t go to a sandwich shop, you go to a cob shop,” said Jonnie Robinson, dialectologist and lead curator of the British Library’s Spoken Speech collection.
Yet our numerous words for the enduringly popular bread roll reflect more than opinion on the ‘right way’ to say things, instead reflecting “geographical barriers, political and cultural divisions and settlement history,” according to Dr Laurel MacKenzie, linguist and coordinator of the aforementioned University of Manchester study.
Take the Coventry ‘batch’, which comes from an old Germanic word meaning ‘to bake’ (‘bacan’ in Old English). “This original meaning shifted from ‘process of baking’ to ‘event of baking’ to ‘the set of things baked’, and eventually from there got to ‘set of things from one origin’ and just ‘set of things’,” explained Dr Tam Blaxter, a member of the faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge University. “So ‘batch’ meaning ‘bread roll’ is a different, localised development.” Similarly, Lancashire’s favoured word, ‘barm’ (meaning yeast) is probably descended from an old, native Germanic word, too.
Then there are terms that reflect the influence of other languages on English. Of ‘bap’, used across northern stretches of the British Isles, particularly in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland, Dr Blaxter admits its origins are a bit of a mystery. But while there’s no known etymology, it is attested to be a Scots word. Meanwhile ‘bara’ is alleged to mean ‘bread roll’ in Wales; however, given that the Welsh word simply translates to ‘bread’, some suggest the bara-bread roll comparison all comes down to a simple mistranslation.
Dr Blaxter goes on to note that “English does stand out among languages in the degree to which we’ve developed a culture of talking about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ speech”, which makes me think that our fierce debates about bread aren’t really about bread; they’re about identity. After all, the words we use says a lot about us, and what strikes me as a northerner is that when compared to the south, the northern regions of the UK seem to have greater diversity when it comes to these enduring regionalisms.
Our fierce debates about bread aren’t really about bread; they’re about identity
I asked Robinson, a fellow Yorkshire-person, whether we northerners simply have a stronger sense of regional identity than southerners. “Certainly in a modern context, a lot of speakers in the south of England use a lot more ‘standard’ vocabulary than speakers in the north of England,” he said.
Not quite the overt ‘yes’ my northern pride was hoping for.
Instead, Robinson explained, it all comes down to cities, or rather London’s penchant for absorbing nearby cities both physically and influentially, thus making the south-east more linguistically homogenous, at least when it comes to bread rolls. In the north, on the other hand, urban sprawl is less common, allowing neighbouring urban hubs to flourish independently and helping preserve localised language variants. That explains why people from northern England predominantly plump for ‘buns’ or ‘barm cakes’, while in the south-east (especially London and the Home Counties), all you’ll really hear is ‘roll’.
And if it weren’t already hard enough for both native and non-native speakers to navigate the yeasty nuance of British bread terms, further differentiations exist. Robinson notes that his Midlander mum would always make a distinction between a ‘soft bap’ and a ‘crusty cob’, even though they’re both two of the most widely accepted, synonymous variations on the neutral ‘bread roll’. Then there are contextual variations in usage. “For some people the distinction is not just the word, it’s the types of products. So, in the Leeds/Castleford area you get ‘breadcakes’ if they’re round and ‘scufflers’ if they’re triangular,” Robinson said.
The distinction involves sweet baked goods too, reflecting the historical usage of ‘cake’ to mean smaller breads, rather than a sugary dessert. While ‘bun’ means ‘bread roll’ in the northern British Isles, the Scots use the term to mean a very rich fruitcake, Blaxter said. Alternatively, ‘bun’ can also refer to a diminutive version of a cupcake, minus the frosting.
Then there is ‘muffin’ – the preferred term for bread roll in the northern English city of Oldham – which once used to be a both sweet and savoury type of bread. In most parts of the UK, ‘muffin’ has since narrowed to mean the sweet version.
Getting lost in translation doesn’t necessitate a trip overseas for us Brits at all; you could probably head 10km down the road in some places and be lost among ‘barm cakes’ instead of ‘baps’. And while most confusions are easily resolved, maybe just cross your fingers that you weren't looking for a currant-filled 'teacake' when in West Yorkshire.
Editor’s Note: The a previous version of this article included references to the term ‘blaa’, which is used to refer to a roll in Waterford, Ireland, which is not part of the UK.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.