Claim: Jimmies, the sprinkles used on confections, are so named as a reference to Jim Crow.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, February 2003]
When I was 16 or 17, I heard for the first time this doozy of an urban legend, causing me to feel guilt for taking pride in this linguistic quirk — although I never stopped using the word. My friend told me, after I had ordered jimmies on my ice cream, that it was racist to say jimmies. She explained that because chocolate sprinkles are black, early Bostonian racists referred to them as jimmies — because of the Jim Crow laws. As little sense as this makes to me now, I was taken aback as a teenager, and was vaguely ashamed every time I got a chocolate-sprinkled sundae.
I've heard it about 20 times since then, from all different sources, inside and outside of Boston, each accompanied by a dire warning not to perpetuate this racist expression!
Origins: While many of us like our ice cream unadorned, some could not properly enjoy a cone of their favorite flavor without its first being dipped into or sprinkled with jimmies, a colored candy decoration commonly used on ice cream, cupcakes, and donuts. However, as the example above illustrates, for some it's a guilty pleasure because they've been told their preferred name for the
The Dictionary of American Regional English defines jimmies as "tiny balls or rod-shaped bits of candy used as a topping for ice-cream, cakes and other sweets." This confection goes by many names, including 'sprinkles', 'nonpareils,' and 'hundreds and thousands,' but even among those who refer to them as 'jimmies' there is
There are two theories as to why anyone might think there's a racist connotation to the name: One focuses on the brown color of what some say are the only true jimmies; the other posits that the name is a reference to Jim Crow, the title character in a well-known minstrel song of the 1830s. (Jim Crow quickly became a slang term for anything having to do with African-Americans, particularly items of a racist bent, such as the Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks from whites in the South.)
No valid reason exists to suppose that 'jimmies' carries a racist meaning or had a racially-charged origin. However, it's difficult to definitively disprove the claim because the term's entry into the English language is downright murky.
The theory cited most often attributes the naming of the confection to the
Later that decade, the sprinkles show up in Ottawa and Spokane newspapers, and by 1927, Sunshine is producing a Chocolate Sprinkle cookie topped with marshmallow and sprinkles. (There's even a laxative consisting of "tasty Swiss-like milk chocolate sprinkles"; a 1928 ad in the Pittsburgh Press says it has given "Thousands of
"I think jimmies were a way to brand sprinkles," said Kimmerle. She thought the reason why some people call only the chocolate version of sprinkles jimmies is because Just Born initially made only chocolate sprinkles.
As to how else the term could have entered the language, another theory suggests it as a short form of the venerable English slang word
However, that theory has a number of holes in it. First, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which is the bible of word histories for the English language), the only meanings common to both
Throwing yet another log on the fire, a 1993 Boston Globe item stated that "The origin of the name is apparently unknown, but we found this hard-to-take-too-seriously reference in an old file: An (unnamed) ice cream maker claims that in 1901 Constance Bartlett of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, after grating chocolate over ice cream for her son's birthday, reportedly told other children they couldn't eat them because 'they're Jimmy's.'"
Sometimes words just sneak into a language without anyone's knowing, years after the fact, how that process came about. Yet no matter how jimmies became part of common parlance (as with many other terms, its origin may ultimately prove untraceable), no substantive evidence demonstrates anything denigrative of African-Americans was tied to the origin of the name:
So where did the "racist" rumor come from? It's possible that people old enough to remember the candies of the '40s wrongly assumed that "jimmies" was also a slur. But there's no evidence that this notion was ever widespread.
If the idea hasn't died out, that's surely because it's so hard to prove a negative.
Barbara "brown out" Mikkelson
Last updated: 21 June 2015
Feldman, David. Do Elephants Jump? New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-053914-6 (pp. 165-168). Feldman, David. Why Do Pirates Love Parrots? New York: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN 0-06-088842-3 (pp. 302-303). Freeman, Jan. "Gimme Jimmies!" The Boston Globe. 9 February 2003 (p. D3). Freeman, Jan. "The Jimmies Story." The Boston Globe. 13 March 2011. Morrison, Sara. "Is It Racist to Call Them 'Jimmies'? The Boston Globe. 21 June 2015. Rosenthal, Jack. "The Words of Summer." The New York Times. 28 August 1983 (p. F16). The New York Times. "History of 'Jimmies.'" 16 August 1989 (p. C8). The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-861258-3.