AUSSIE WORDS

LAMINGTON OR LEMMINGTON?—THE OZ ‘NATIONAL DISH’

lamington: noun,a small square of sponge cake (meant for one person)
coated all over in softish chocolate icing and then in desiccated coconut.
Our earliest citations (1909) for the very Aussie lamington are in recipes. Part of the recipe in the Guild Cookery Book (Holy Trinity Church Ladies’ Working Guild) reads: ‘icing for [a Lamington cake]: Quarter lb. butter, 1 cup icing sugar; beat to a cream; 2 tablespoons of cocoa, mixed with 2 tablespoons boiling water. Mix all well together, and put over the Lamington’. This lamington is obviously a whole cake, not one cut up into individual-portion squares; and although there is cocoa in the icing, there is no coconut. The Schauer Cookery Book (1909) gives a similar recipe, and concludes: ‘spread, when cold, with chocolate icing, and sprinkle with cocoanut’. Here the coconut makes its appearance, but again we are dealing with a whole cake.

By 1912 the possibility of the cake being cut into the squares we know today enters the picture: 1912: ‘...when [the cake] is cold, cut into squares and ice. Icing for above cake:—1 lb. icing sugar; 1/4 lb. butter; crush sugar fine, melt butter, mix both together; add 1 1/2 tablespoonfuls of boiling water and 4 teaspoonfuls of cocoanut [this is obviously a mistake for ‘cocoa’]. If too thick for spreading, add another teaspoonful of water. Spread all over little squares and roll in grated cocoanut. Half the quantity is sufficient, if the cake is not cut into squares’ (The Kookaburra Cookery Book (Committee of the Lady Victoria Buxton Girls’ Club, Adelaide), 2nd edition, p. 242)

The (perplexing) popularity of lamingtons in Australia, then and now, is well attested, but what is the origin of the term? All of the current dictionaries say that it is probably named after Charles Wallace Baillie, Lord Lamington, who was governor of Queensland 18951901. But there are some puzzles here. Sydney Baker in his The Australian Language (2nd edition, 1966) mentions a lamington, but that lamington is a hat,not a cake: ‘Lamington,a Homburg hat, as worn by Baron Lamington, Queensland Governor, 1896-1901’ (p. 272). Elsewhere in his book Baker mentions the cake, but it doesn’t occur to him to impute it to the Baron as he does the hat: ‘Lamington, a square-cut piece of sponge, chocolate coated and sprinkled with coconut ... I know of many Australians who ... identify it as a luxurious symbol of Australia. I fail to understand why’ (p. 86). We can, I think, conclude from this that the Baron Lamington story was not current in the 1960s. In 1976 Grahame Johnston’s The Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary was published. Johnston includes the term lamington (the cake), but indicates in the etymology section that the origin is unknown.

As far as we can ascertain, the first appearance of the baronial attribution is in an article by John Hepworth in Nation Review, July 1977. He tells us that at Cloncurry in Queensland, at a glittering banquet, ‘an irascible diner seized a piece of spongecake which had dropped into a dish of brown gravy and hurled it over his shoulder in a fairly grumpy manner. The soggy piece of cake landed in a dish of shredded coconut which was standing on the sideboard waiting for the service of an Indian curry’. A certain Agnes Lovelightly, in a flash of genius, saw the possibility of substituting chocolate sauce for the brown gravy, and so the lamington was born. Hepworth continues:

It would have been nice ... had this great good gateau been named for the humble genius whose invention, or divine perception, it was. But in the snobby bumsucking manner of the day it was named in honor of baron Lamington, who was governor of Queensland at the time. For many years lamingtons were served on state ceremonial occasions in Queensland and won universal approbation. But Baron Lamington himself could by no means abide them. He invariably—and somewhat oddly—referred to them as ‘those bloody poofy woolly biscuits’. Now this has all the appearance of a furphy, similar to the claim made in the Bulletin in 1981 that the lamington was ‘named after the man who broke the world record for running from Sydney to Perth carrying a dog’. (I find the long-distance dog-humping runner almost as difficult to swallow as the cake.) In 1978 in The Australian Slanguage Bill Hornadge repeats the baronial etymology, drawing attention to the Hepworth article, but not indicating the generally facetious tone of the article as a whole. Australian dictionaries from 1981 on follow one another like lemmings in alluding to Baron Lamington in their etymology. And once the humble squidgy lamington had become firmly attached to the noble (and no doubt equally squidgy) Baron Lamington, the way was open for various embellishments. Hepworth’s story surfaces in a slightly different form in the Courier Mail in 1981: A colleague [of the Staff Reporter writing the article] ... swears this really is how the lamington came about. At one stage when Baron Lamington was Queensland Governor, there was a large amount of stale cake in the Government House kitchen. In an attempt to make it palatable, the cake was dipped in chocolate and then tossed in desiccated coconut. The parliamentarians liked this ‘gateau’ and ordered their cooks to obtain the recipe from the Government House cook. (Receyt for the Makyng of Ye Lamyngtones: First, find a lot of stale cake....) The same article included a competing etymology:
AND NOW, SCOTLAND LAYS CLAIM TO THE LAMINGTON....

Mr Mal Hay, from Wordsworth Street, Strathpine, delivered an extract from a Scottish newspaper, the Sunday Post, describing the popularity of a small Scottish village with Australians. The Village was Lamington, near Biggar in Lanarkshire. The article said a group of hungry, travelling sheep shearers were having afternoon tea on an outback property. The property owner’s wife, a Scot from Lamington, made a large sponge cake, cut it in squares and served it with chocolate icing and coconut. The shearers loved it and asked about its name. ‘Oh just a Lamington cake,’ the woman replied. When the shearers were treated to afternoon teas on the other properties they would describe the Lamington cake and ask the women there to bake it.

Another furphyesque story? Probably so. The evidence from New Zealand, however, presents more feasible a possibility. New Zealanders also love lamingtons. It is interesting that most of the citations for lamington in Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English(1997) spell the word as leamington or lemmington, although we have not found this spelling in the Australian evidence. It is common to find place names used in the names of cakes—the Bath bun, the Chelsea bun, the Eccles cake, etc. The village of Lamington in Scotland may be a false eponym, but there is Leamington (Spa) in Warwickshire, and Lemmington in Northumberland. It is just possible that the lamington has its origin in a British place name. Do any readers have an ancient English recipe book which includes a recipe for a lemmington (or leamington) cake?

So popular are lamingtons with Aussies that the cakes are a favourite means of raising money and have spawned a new Aussie term—lamington drive. This is an organised effort by a school, community group, or charity to make lamingtons (in probably mind-boggling quantities) and sell them to the lamington-starved populace in order to raise money. In 1977, in the Nation Review article already cited, John Hepworth, writing about ‘the dreaded Pavlova’ and ‘the even more dreaded Lamington’, has the following appalling facts about a lamington drive in the ‘cataplexic Melbourne suburb of Camberwell’: the mothers (sisters, cousins, and aunts too, surely) of the Camberwell South Scouts made and sold well nigh a quarter of a million (19,040 dozen or 228,480) of ‘the little furry buggers’ in as little as a day and a half. The Lamington drivers certainly know when they are on to a good thing. That is why we have lamington drives by the hundred but nary a ‘rock-cake drive’ or ‘home-made fudge with peanuts drive’ or ‘scones with currants and candied peel drive’.

The etymology I really like (what a pity it isn’t true) is that the word lamington derives from lemming (the suicidal rodent) plus ton as in ‘tons of’. Lemmingtons, as everyone knows, are cakes made out of (minced) lemmings who haven’t yet drowned themselves. The lemmingtons are then liberally sploshed with chocolate and rolled in desiccated coconut. I empathise strongly with the indignation of this Enzedder (quoted in The Dictionary of New Zealand English): 1992: ‘The lemmingtons in the cafe aren’t made of real lemmings (something should be done about this)’ (Salient, Wellington, 17 Aug. 32). I love that parenthesis.

F.L.