Sometimes adoptions of words between languages are hard to spot; Philip Durkin in The Oxford Guide to Etymology (OUP, 2009, p 56-7) cites the English word ‘cranberry’, for which the first part ‘is totally opaque to a speaker of modern English who does not know something of the history of the word’. Apparently the humble cranberry has given its name to ‘cranberry morphs’, elements of words which appear to have come from nowhere. It is probably an adoption into English from Low German, arriving in North American English in the 17th century, and derives ultimately from a word cognate to ‘crane’, cranes being white. Durkin proposes that, due to some similar plants having white berries (‘snowberries’) ‘the name may simply have been transferred from the white-berried type to the red-berried type, and indeed the white-berried type do appear to have been the first to be given this name’. There follows some argument about ‘snowberry’ possibly deriving from the time when the plant bears its berries, though it is unclear how this connects to cranberries. The discussion then moves onto strawberries, whose etymology is ‘far from obvious’ (code for ‘nobody knows’); various ideas have been put forward – the appearance of the plant’s runners, or the appearance of small seeds on the surface. The cranberry mystery may be cleared up, but ‘strawberry’, like the fruit itself, the only temperate fruit with its seeds on the outside, remains an anomaly; and it seems that actually the seeds are not seeds, and neither is the strawberry a berry.
But presumably these etymological hypotheses were put forward by people who believed in them. At what point does ‘it must be because’ type etymology cross over into reasonable conjecture?
Alan Davidson’s magisterial Oxford Companion to Food (2nd edition, 2004) does not stoop to include bridge rolls, that bland white pretence for bread and the natural home for squashed boiled egg or jam that featured so often in children’s teatimes in the 1960s. The OED defines a bridge roll as ‘a soft, oval, bread roll’, with the earliest citation being: ‘Social Tea … Bridge Rolls and Cress, White and Brown Bread and Butter’, from Good Housekeeping, 1926. John Ayto’s The Diner’s Dictionary (2013) offers the following: ‘They appear to be quite recent creations—the term is not recorded before 1926—but by the mid-twentieth century they had become omnipresent in Britain at occasions such as children’s parties, their filling seeming almost invariably to be egg and cress. Since the 1960s they have gone into a decline. The origin of their name is not clear, but the likeliest explanation is that they were originally intended to be eaten at afternoon parties at which bridge was played.’
While agreeing with Ayto’s assessment of the fate of the bridge roll, the hypothesis of the association with bridge parties is a bit too reminiscent of the strawberry stories; it might work as a stop-gap etymology, but only until something better turns up. However, there is strong circumstantial evidence for another pathway, via a similar looking, though much more pleasant tasting, bread from across the Channel. Around the end of the nineteenth century recipes for ‘brioche rolls’ occasionally appeared in British papers and magazines: ‘If the making of the brioche rolls is considered too much trouble’ (Hampshire Telegraph, 9 May 1891); ‘short cake, milk toast, milk rolls, and brioche rolls’ (Daily Telegraph and Courier, 10 November 1893); ‘Brioche Rolls’ (Bradford Daily Telegraph, 15 April 1903) [the ‘Telegraph’ title for all these papers is incidental, we think]. The Modern Baker (1908) tantalizingly describes brioche, in a recipe, as suitable for ‘savoury sandwiches … made up as fingers’, and though this describes them as ‘cakes’ rather than ‘rolls’, the finger-shaped roll for a savoury sandwich-filling is as good a description of a bridge roll as one could get.
The sudden strengthening in 1914 of the association between Britain and France brought thousands of young men, used to taking afternoon tea, and no doubt amenable to continental breakfasts, as officers to tables where brioche would have been a common sight. ‘Brioche rolls’ to ‘bridge rolls’ is a little step; and fortunately there is evidence for ‘bridge rolls’ appearing at a very well-known place for taking afternoon tea – not a Lyons Corner House, but Maison Lyons, in Oxford Street, in 1916.
An advertisement for Maison Lyons in Oxford Street, London, 1916, showing bridge rolls at 6d a dozen. Note the absence of ‘brioche rolls’ among the patisserie.
This combining of French and English continued through the twenties, as both ‘Maison Lyons’ and ‘brioche rolls’ continued to be seen frequently, though sadly not together: ‘Vienna Bread and Rolls, Brioche Rolls, French Bread’ (Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 March 1933); while MacArthur’s, advertising in the St Andrews Citizen 7 January 1928, advertised ‘VIENNA BREAD, SPECIAL PAN, BRIOCHE FINGERS, and BRIDGE ROLLS’. The question as to whether they were cakes or rolls presumably depended on their sweetness; May Byron’s Puddings, Pastries and Sweet Dishes (1929) implies, by its very title as well as the four ounces of sugar in the recipe, that the designation ‘cake’ was appropriate for that brioche.
This is not to say that there was no social association with the game of bridge: both teatime rolls and bridge, known from 1902 as ‘Auction Bridge’, would have featured in lazy early twentieth-century afternoons. Bridge was a fairly new game still by 1914, first recorded in 1886, when it was called ‘biritch or Russian whist’ (Ernest Weekley, Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 1922). According to Weekley it was a card game of Russian origin, but the origin of the word was unknown, the Russian name of the game being vint, ‘screw’.
A thumb-through of the IWM reprint of the 1922 publication Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry Into “Shell-shock” stops on the page on which W H Rivers advises Lt James Butlin not to play bridge as it ‘tended to keep you too much in the house’. It seems very much an officers’ game, in keeping with the ‘social tea’ of 1926. American Frederick Pottle in Stretchers – The Story of a Hospital Unit on the Western Front (1929) describes playing at the casino in Mont Dore, a fashionable spa town; at the other end of the comfort scale there is a ‘bridge party’, amongst the officers described in Eliot Crawshay-Williams’ Leaves from an Officer’s Notebook (1918) ‘which would play bridge on the altars of the gods, the tombs of the Kings, or the shield of a waggon during action’.
The nearest available thing to bridge rolls seem now to be called ‘finger rolls’ – from shape perhaps, but not size, and the number in the pack here seems rather unthought-out; they are bigger than bridge rolls too. Incidentally they connects to the brioche called main de St Agathe in the Savoie town of Saint-Pierre d’Albigny, shaped to signify the hand and fingers of that saint, whose hand was severed as she defended herself against torture. The ‘fingers’ are traditionally tipped in red, though not with strawberry jam.