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shameless pleading

Bark (Candy)

Try it with the marshmallow woof.

Dear Word Detective: Where did we come up with the name “bark” to describe a holiday candy that comes in sheets made of chocolate or similar meltable confections with pieces of nut or hard candy embedded? I see some vague resemblance to tree bark, but that name seems like a missed marketing opportunity. — Harold Tessmann III.

Missed marketing opportunity? You say that like it’s a bad thing. Personally, I’d like to see a lot more missed marketing opportunities around here. Call me a moldy hippie (never mind, here comes one now), but I always thought it might be nice to avoid complete surrender to Marx’s prediction about capitalism reducing every social relation to a cash nexus. You know, “Try Zingo Milk of Human Kindness! Now in five dynamite flavors with added vitamins to give you the winner’s edge!” That sort of thing.

Onward. When I set out to answer a question, I usually begin by poking around to see if I’ve already answered it, which may sound demented but is really no stranger than opening the refrigerator to see if you’ve run out of pickles. (I keep hoping we’ve run out of pickles. Don’t ask.) It turns out that I’ve answered a number of questions about “bark” over the years, but never this one. “Bark” is apparently the gift that keeps on giving. Rather like pickles.

There are three basic “bark” nouns in English. The oldest is the “bark” meaning “skin of a tree” and related senses, which comes from the Old Norse “borkr” and showed up in print in English around 1300. Next up is “bark” meaning a small sailing ship, which we also spell “barque” because we filched it from the French (who had adopted it from the Latin “barca”) in the late 15th century. Then there’s the “bark” a dog makes, which first appeared in print in 1562 as a noun, although the verb “to bark” dates back to Old English. “Bark” in this sense is supposed to sound like an actual dog’s bark, which I suppose it does (although dogs cannot, ironically, pronounce the letter “b”).

“Bark” in the “chocolate bark” sense of a layer or stratum of hard or semi-hard candy in which various things (candy, nuts, etc.) are embedded is definitely a figurative use of the “tree skin” kind of “bark,” based on the vague resemblance of the confection to very rough tree bark. Cooking and recipe sites on the internet are full of recipes for this kind of “bark” in numerous varieties (peppermint bark, fruit bark, etc.), but, oddly enough, dictionaries largely ignore this usage. It’s missing from the Oxford English Dictionary and the latest American Heritage Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online does define “bark” as “a candy containing chocolate and nuts that is made in a sheet and broken into pieces,” but their Third International Unabridged from 1961 doesn’t recognize the usage. That gap may indicate that this sense of “bark” is just now emerging into general usage from cooking jargon and, perhaps, regional usage.

I think I must have encountered chocolate bark at some point in the past few years, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. Isn’t it just a huge chocolate bar with stuff stuck in it? Boring. As a kid, however, I loved what we used to call “peanut brickle” (or “brittle”), which was peanuts embedded in a sheet of hard candy flavored with molasses. “Brickle,” by the way, is just an old dialectical form of “brittle,” meaning “easily broken,” and breaking off chunks of that stuff combined the joy of candy with the destructive thrill of snapping something into pieces.

3 comments to Bark (Candy)

  • Harold Tessmann III

    I noticed this use of “bark” in the past few years myself. I started seeing the candy in stores around the holiday season. I live in Michigan, so maybe the word just started invading the Midwest or maybe I didn’t pay attention until recently. Still, I saw the candy in nearby megamarts and not made by a local confectioner, so it seems the word has some spread.

  • Mac

    I’ve been aware of this use of the word at least since the mid-1970′s. Then it was something only found at specialty candy stores or at the candy counters in high end department stores. And at the time, there were basically three choices: milk, dark, or white, all with almonds.

    The appeal of chocolate bark is due, I think, in part to the higher-quality chocolate used (compared to grocery store candy bars), and in part due to the thickness and irregular texture. Chocolate bark definitely provides a different mouth feel compared to what one gets with a “normal” candy bar.

  • sarah

    Hello,I think some of the origin of bark candy can be traced to the real tree bark candy that is made in the moutans of tn va and nc it is made by peeling away the hard outer layer of the bark so that you can get to the soft inner layer ,then you peel off the soft layer in thin strips and coat them in sugar and lay them out to dry ,you are bacicly candying wood celulose witch can be found in many foods we eat today, think mc d’s hambuger filler,years ago I saw a tv program that was showing the process ,it was prettymuch candy of necessity for poor moutan people my grandmother who grew up in the moutans of tn used to talk about making tree candy in the spring with her grandmother,I think its only sorgum trees that are used for this

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