Learned #31: Candied

In which we learn about the sweet stuff.

"Trick or treat!" The kids I teach are sweethearts and they've produced the required English so they now get to reach into the hollowed-out, plastic pumpkin I've got stuck on the piano, and pull out two pieces of candy. They are delighted. They can't wait to see what they've got. They're hoping they'll get to go again at the end of the lesson.

But then, out of the darkened corners of the classroom, comes a phrase that strikes fear into the heart of every teacher or parent around the Halloween season: "This isn't candy."

Hold everything. Visions of childhood urban legends swirl through my mind - did something get slipped into the candy bucket when I wasn't looking? Has some horrible fiend dropped rat poison or, worse, vegetables into the treats I've set up for my kids?

I bring the lights up and examine the offending matter. It's a Kit Kat. A harmless, bite-sized Kit Kat. Cookies coated in chocolate, two sticks joined along a seam, friendly red package that has not been obviously tampered with. Kit Kat.

"What do you mean, it's not candy?"

"It's chocolate."

Thus begins the annual debate over what does and what does not constitute candy. On one side of the issue, good children who understand that sweet treats equal candy. On the other side, horrible, ungrateful, little snots whose pedantry at eight-years-old promises a lifetime of type-A anti-socialism. But, in the interest of fairness, this week, we'll take a look at why the first kids are right and the second group of kids are...not.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: The Sweet Stuff

  • What We're Reading: Brief Answers to the Big Questions

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Confectionary Videos

Let's get to it.

Photo by Jeff Frenette on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

The Sweet Stuff

Wikipedia has a beautifully all-encompassing definition of candy:

Candy, also called sweets or lollies, is a confection that features sugar as a principal ingredient. The category, called sugar confectionery, encompasses any sweet confection, including chocolate, chewing gum, and sugar candy. Vegetables, fruit, or nuts which have been glazed and coated with sugar are said to be candied.

The article continues with some added traits:

  • lots of sugar

  • made in small amounts

  • eaten casually

More importantly, it gives us the key for understanding the confusion that spurred this debate - "each culture has its own ideas of what constitutes candy."

Candy, Candied

Photo by Francisco Mamani on Unsplash

Here’s a question - what do you call fruits and nuts that have been either glazed or dusted in sugar? Growing up, I always called them, for example, “candied apples.” When I came to Japan (and had to first start really thinking about the English language) I kept correcting students who called them “candy apples” on the mistaken assumption that “candied” was the (only correct) adjective form of “candy.” Whoops.

The etymology is a little unclear, as the history of “candy” as a verb dates back to the early 16th century, while “candied” as an adjective dates back only slightly later. It turns out, however, that in modern dictionaries, both words can function as an adjective, meaning that both “candy apple” and “candied apple” are correct.

(Truthfully, from a teaching point of view, it makes sense to stick with candy because it fits the established pattern of nouns as adjectives as in chocolate almonds and caramel apples.)

Candy vs. Dessert

Photo via Flickr user taylorandayumi

Wikipedia gives us the line that candy is “eaten casually,” which they clarify means that it is eaten with fingers, usually between meals instead of after. I like that distinction, it brings festival and market booth candies to mind, equating candy with treats or special, limited-time confections.

Maybe by limiting desserts to knife-and-fork-style dishes, we can help clear up the confusion over adjectives? Like, let’s all agree that “candied yams” are a dessert dish to be eaten after the Thanksgiving turkey and that “candy yams” are slices of sweet potato glazed in a soy-sauce and sugar concoction that can be eaten with your fingers and has absolutely no business being as delicious as it is?


Just to throw one last loose-connection out there: truthfully, most of my kids refer to any chocolate based candy as “choco-candy.” Which seems as good a definition as any. So, when my little sweethearts get nine kinds of pedantic about what does and what does not constitute candy, I usually ask them if it’s a “choco-candy.” When they say yes, I ask them what “choco” means. Then I ask what “candy” means.

Then I get seriously annoyed when they start babbling on about the sum being greater than the constituent parts and that to combine two things is to create a third thing, deserving of its own name.

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this is so far from important as to be laughable. But, for me, getting my students, especially the kids, to engage in a debate is always worth the effort. And if it can be over something as inconsequential as whether a given sweet is or is not candy, so much the better.

Further Reading:

What is Candy?

What We’re Reading:

Brief Answers to the Big Questions

by Stephen Hawking

You may have noticed that I end every issue of this newsletter with the same line: “Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.”

When I first began putting this thing together, I wanted a closing line, something reminiscent of Warren Ellis’ “hold on tight, you’ve got this.” (His sign-off changes every issue, but there’s always a variation on this.) I don’t know Warren Ellis, and, via the rubric Never Meet Your Heroes, I never will, but I’ve always thought of his line as something of a benediction. I can envision Uncle Warren waving a hand and casting a blessing as he says it.

Thus far, I’ve been pretty happy with my sign-off. I felt like it conveyed, in six words, as much of a daily mantra as I’ve ever been able to come up with. But, having read Stephen Hawking’s line, “Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.” I’m very tempted to change it. And that, more than anything, I think, is the particular value of this book. Although brief, it has shown me possibilities for change in my own worldview and in my own way of thinking.

The book is titled Brief Answers to the Big Questions, but it is much more concerned with asking people to ask their own questions, to explore and seek and discover rather than rely on received wisdom or instruction. There is a lot of value there.

The only other book of Dr. Hawking’s I’ve read was A Brief History of Time, and I didn’t understand it. This one is not quite so heady. Instead it’s just a few opinions by a man given to thinking about these kinds of things. It reminds me a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World in its call for more science and more thought. Only, while Sagan’s book seemed almost bitter, Hawking’s book is full of warmth and humor (lots of pot-shots at Brexit!) which tells us that things are getting better, as long as we stick to science and to questing for big answers to big questions.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Today’s Rabbit Hole is a Two for One Special:

Forbidden Candy

There’s a newish subreddit out there called r/forbiddensnacks. It’s pictures of things that look like they should be edible but are, actually, something else entirely. Think Tide Pods. For my money, you can just put down anything sold in Lush...

Old Time Candy

Watching candy being made is one of those internet time-sucks that sneaks up on you. How interesting could it be watching someone make traditional hard-candies? Turns, out: very. Several channels have popped up featuring people making candy using traditional techniques, tools, or both. Much like the candy they feature, you tell yourself you’ll just watch one, only to find that several hours have suddenly snuck by…

One Last Thing:

Occasionally a song gets stuck in your head. Sometimes, that song can by triggered by a single word. Like “candy.” For a lot of people that might be Bow Wow Wow’s 1982 (cover?!) hit “I Want Candy.” But, for me, there’s only one “Candy” and it was written by one Iggy Pop for his 1990 record, Brick by Brick. And yes, that is Kate Pierson of the B-52s on both the track and in the video. Enjoy.

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.