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.

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