LAMINGTON OR LEMMINGTON?—THE OZ ‘NATIONAL DISH’
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:
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.
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.