Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Every October, in the run-up to Halloween, parent groups, news anchors, and even the police issue dire warnings about what horrible things might be hidden in the candy in a child’s trick-or-treat bag — from pins and razor blades to poisons and hallucinogenic drugs. This year, the focus is on so-called rainbow fentanyl.
While it isn’t outside the realm of possibility, the existence of tainted Halloween confections is largely considered an urban myth (and it’s worth noting that there are no reports of children ever having died from eating booby-trapped candy). But there was a time when people would buy confections because of the drugs in them.
Confection is part of a family of words that trace back to the Latin conficere, from com- “with” + facere “to make, to do.” Conficere meant “to carry out, bring to completion.” Later, it took on a more specific meaning: “to prepare by mixing ingredients.”
Confection shows up in the English written record first, in the mid-14th century, but it didn’t mean only the candies and sweetmeats that the word indicates today. Back then, it was any product created through the compounding of ingredients — even nonfood items.
Next in the written record was confect, a verb meaning “to mix together,” followed soon by confectioner “one who confects” and confectionery, meaning both “the confectioner’s products taken as a whole” and later “the place where confections are sold.”
A tangent about spelling: Both confectionery and confectionary are well attested in English, but confectionery is by far the more common. Some usage mavens encourage maintaining two such similar (and confusing) words where they may be usefully distinguished. For instance, Bryan Garner, author of the highly respected Garner’s Modern English Usage, recommends that we keep confectionary as an adjective (e.g., “the chocolatier’s confectionary acumen”) and use confectionery only as a noun. However, because nouns can be used attributively — that is, they can act like adjectives, as with the Halloween in “Halloween costume” — there’s no strong grammatical argument against using confectionery in every instance and forgetting that confectionary even exists.
At the beginning of the 1600s, one of the most common confections wasn’t candy but medicine: A confectioner would confect pharmacological ingredients with sugar, honey, and other tasty components to make the medication more palatable. The practice was so common that confectioner was for a time synonymous with chemist in Great Britain (the equivalent of a pharmacist in the U.S.).
Of course, the same sweet treats could be manufactured without the medicine — a product with less practical use but a much greater market — and eventually, as both pharmacology and candy-making expanded, confection and its lexical siblings found a permanent home in sweetmeats.
In a related case, a small sugary confection in Italy is called a confetto, from the same Latin source. During the 18th century, Italian nobles expressed their largesse by tossing such candies to the common folk during festivals, the sugar and flour within them leaving streaks of white dust on the recipients’ clothes.
But such treats were expensive — and why should the rich have all the fun? Average Italians took up the idea but eliminated the sweetness: They rolled up small pellets of lime or soft plaster, which they would throw not so much to as at friends, acquaintances, and the admired during festivals and parades, again leaving white residue on clothing. It was a point of pride for some party-goers to come away covered in white, as though they had spent the day in a small, overcrowded aviary.
This inedible pellet kept the name confetto in Italian, and it was the precursor to what English speakers more commonly know in the plural: confetti.
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