It's one of the enduring cross-cultural culinary conundrums: Why are packaged potato snacks called chips in the US and crisps in the UK? The answer is equal parts history, legend, and marketing savvy. And the spudscape is getting more complicated as cultural boundaries dissolve and the snack-food industry grows more creative and prolific.
First, some traditional definitions:
American "crisps," from a California-based company.
Just to make things really confusing, there's a completely different kind of crisp in America: the baked kind, made with sliced fruit and an oats-flour-and-butter topping. The British call it a crumble. And yes, we bake crumbles in America, too, and they're almost (but not quite) the same as crisps.
For now, though, let's stick with packaged snacks. Which product — and name — came first, and where did it originate? Sorry, UK, the New World wins both contests.
Although Charles Dickens mentioned "husky chips of potato" in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), he was referring to what Americans call French fries. Thin, crunchy chips had come along a few years earlier, and they were an American invention. In 1853, the legend goes, a diner at Moon's Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York, sent his fried potatoes back to the cook, complaining that they were too thick. The cook, George Crum — described as "generally ornery" in the official story — "sliced a new batch of potatoes paper thin, fried them in boiling oil to a crisp, and then salted them." The result was a hit; the potatoes — originally dubbed "crunch potato slices" — were soon renamed Saratoga Chips, and by 1879, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "potato chip" had entered the lexicon. (An alternative version of the story, reproduced in Barry Popik's The Big Apple website, credits Crum's sister with the invention.) The chips were produced in Saratoga Springs until the early 1920s; in 2009, a new factory, the Saratoga Specialty Company, began making the chips again, reportedly from the original recipe.
Hundreds of miles from Saratoga Springs, potato chips got their first big marketing push in 1895, when a Cleveland, Ohio, man named William Tappenden began making the snacks on his kitchen stove and delivering them to grocers in his horse-drawn wagon. In 1908, the Leominster Potato Chip Factory (later named Tri-Sum Potato Chips) opened in Massachusetts; Mike-Sell's Potato Chip Company opened in 1910 in Dayton, Ohio. Chips made in factories like these were shipped in bulk and sold out of barrels in grocery stores. Inevitably, the chips at the bottom of the barrels became stale and crumbled. That changed in 1926, when another American entrepreneur, 45-year-old nurse-turned-lawyer Laura Scudder, opened a potato-chip factory in Southern California. She named the company after herself and introduced waxed-paper bags as packaging. This innovation kept the chips fresher — Mrs. Scudder also printed dates on the packages — and allowed mass marketing.
It took almost half a century for the next major breakthrough in chip technology. Pringles were invented by Procter & Gamble chemists who labored in the 1950s and 1960s to create uniformly saddle-shaped chips (hyperbolic paraboloids, if you want to get technical) that stacked neatly in an air-tight cylindrical can. Pringles were first sold in the US in 1968 as "Pringles Newfangled Potato Chips," but in 1975 the US Food and Drug Administration ruled that because Pringles contained only 42 percent potato, they couldn't be called "potato chip." As a result, Pringles became the first major US potato-snack brand to be marketed as "crisps." That led to a legal dispute in the UK, where Pringles were deemed not to be crisps, either. For a while they were re-relabeled "snacks," but today they're sold without any descriptive term at all.
(The origin of the Pringles name is a mystery, perhaps intentionally. One story has it that Procter & Gamble picked the name from a Cincinnati telephone book.)
Meanwhile, across the pond, British-style crisps — which were never called chips — were just catching on. According to H2G2, the "user-generated guide to life" started by novelist Douglas Adams, the first British crisps were manufactured in 1913 by a man named Carter who had discovered them in France. But it wasn't until 1920, with the founding of the Smiths Potato Crisps Company, Ltd., in London, that most Britons were able to buy crisps, in greaseproof paper bags sold from Frank Smith's pony cart. But potato crisp wasn't documented in print until 1929, according to the OED. The term got a dubious endorsement from the American-born naturalized Briton T.S. Eliot, whose 1950 play The Cocktail Party included this line of dialogue: "Potato crisps? No, I can't endure them."
The British have made up for their late start in the crisps business by outdoing the Americans on the flavor front. Whereas American potato chips are usually available in only four or five flavors — plain, barbeque, sour cream and onion, and salt and vinegar are the most popular — British crisps are impressively eclectic. When linguist Lynne Murphy blogged about the chips/crisps distinction in 2009, she noted the popularity in the UK of meat flavors, including steak and onion, chicken and thyme, prawn cocktail, and even — the winner of a contest sponsored by Walkers Crisps — Cajun Squirrel. Walkers also makes a special holiday flavor: roast turkey and stuffing. The package reads "Merry Crispmas!"
I haven't seen anything that wacky on US grocery shelves — yet. But who knows? Ben Yagoda, who tracks Britishisms that have infiltrated American English, recently made a prediction, based on his own informal research, that crisps "are poised to make their mark in these parts." How many chips would you place on that bet?
Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books.Click here to read other articles by Nancy Friedman