In Reply to: Plums posted by Anne Carruthers on January 20, 2010 at 19:19:
: I'm puzzled about plums in English. Upper-class English people are said to speak with a "plummy" accent, which I'm told is so named because it sounds as if the speaker has a plum in his mouth. Then there is the rhyme about Little Jack Horner (a historical person, I believe: a London alderman?) eating his Christmas pie. "He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said 'what a good boy am I!'" and even today we speak of a well-paid sinecure as a "plum." Can anyone connect these references for me? Thanks.
They aren't necessarily all connected, but let's have a go.
- In past centuries, English-speaking people were weirdly unable or unwilling to distinguish between varieties of dried fruit. (For example: we imported "raisins of Corinth", slurred the word to "currant", then looked at the little wizened things and assumed they were the same as what we grew in our own gardens, which we baptised "redcurrants" and "blackcurrants".) In medieval and Tudor times we dried our home-grown plums to preserve them and used them to fill and sweeten puddings, cakes and pies. Before first West Indian sugar cane and then European-grown sugar beet made sugar a cheap commodity, all sweet foods were a festive luxury, and dried fruit was one of the most important sources of sweetness. (That's why Christmas puddings and pies were stuffed with them.) When we began importing dried fruit from the Mediterranean on a large scale, we used those for the same purpose - but went right on talking of "plum pudding" or "plum cake", and called the fruit we used for them "plums", whether they were genuine prunes or were raisins, currants or figs. Just to complicate matters, in West Country dialect they were called "figs" - so the traditional Christmas could be called either a "plum pudding" or a "figgy pudding" although literally it contained neither fruit!
- So, the plum that Little Jack Horner (who *may* have been the steward of the last Abbot of Glastonbury - see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Jack_Horner) pulled out of his pie was a dried fruit of some kind; it's impossible (and fairly immaterial) to know what kind.
- Early in the 19th century "plums" became a slang word for "the best bits of something" - the idea being that you could pick them from the rest, just as you could pick the raisins out of a cake or pudding and leave the stodgy old carbohydrate behind. This is how a desirable job or appointment came to be called a "plum".
As for the "plummy voice": the first known reference is in a book on rhetoric from 1553 -"An other speakes, as though he had Plummes in his mouthe". At that date the "plummes" referred to could be either fresh plums, dried fruit or sweetmeats. Certainly people ate dried "plums" on their own as treats, as well as cooking with them, (incidentally, many kitchens had a rule that the helpers picking over the "plums" to remove bits of stalk etc. before cooking them had to whistle or sing continuously, so the head cook could be sure they weren't eating any on the sly); and small round or oval sweetmeats were made called "sugar plums". (VSD)