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The Age-Old Question of Whether Jimmies Are Racist

There is dissent as to whether the term strictly applies to chocolate sprinkles, but far more importantly, there is disagreement over whether the term is racist. Some of those who grew up with the word now refuse to use it.
Photo via Flickr user newwavegurly


Kaleidoscopic sticks of merriment, or unseemly, saccharine embodiments of Lucifer himself? It seems like every summer, someone dusts off the old, etymological gem and asks the following: Is the term "jimmies" actually racist?

Given the horrific shootings that took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week and the resultant spate of calls to take down Confederate flags nationwide, we thought we'd try and settle once and for all what the deal is with this summer ice cream truck staple.


So, what the hell are jimmies?

Well, as someone not of African-American descent who sincerely loathes the general concept of sprinkles and never grew up with the term jimmies, I'm pretty much the perfect man to ask.

It turns out that jimmies are a regional New England term for the treat that many of us call sprinkles, nonpareils, or even hundreds-and-thousands. The Dictionary of American Regional English defines them as "tiny balls or rod-shaped bits of candy used as a topping for ice-cream, cakes and other sweets."

But even among those in the jimmies camp—who typically come from Boston or New England—there is dissent as to whether the term strictly applies to the brown or "chocolate" variety of the confection, or to all sprinkles.

And far more importantly, there is disagreement over whether the term is racist.

Some of those who grew up with the word now refuse to use it. A recent polling of young Bostonites yielded plenty who felt like this: "It's wildly inappropriate," said Jessica Young, 21, who grew up south of Boston.

Etymology experts claim that the name "jimmies" derives from the Jim Crow laws that were passed after the American Civil War. Those were the laws that segregated the South and pretty much put the brakes on racial harmony in this country for over a century.

Pennsylvania-based confectioner Just Born is largely credited not only with coining the name 'jimmies', but also with developing the associated foodstuff.


Both claims—the developing and the naming—are up for debate. It's highly dubious that Just Born and its founder Sam Born were the first to produce or sell chocolate sprinkles. Confectionary expert Beth Kimmerle, author of Candy: The Sweet History, told that "I think jimmies were a way to brand sprinkles," and that Just Born was looking for a way to put their own name on a pre-existing product, a-la the Hershey's Kiss.

Hell, there's even an advertisement appearing in a 1928 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featuring a laxative consisting of "tasty Swiss-like milk chocolate sprinkles."

Even more controversial is the naming. Perhaps to steer clear of the controversy, Just Born's website is careful to say that jimmies were "named after the employee who made them." Although there is no factual proof he even existed, one Jimmie Bartholomew is said to be the lucky employee.

Okaaaay. Do we buy it?

Maybe not. Some say that may very well be corporate backtracking and the maker of Mike and Ike's and Peeps is just wallpapering the past. But even if that is the case, the name itself may not be racist. The myth-busting website Snopes says jimmies may very well be "a short form of the venerable English slang word jim-jam. While jim-jam has a number of meanings, one that's been around since the 16th century is 'a trivial article or knick-knack.'"

Jimmies, of course, are not the only foodstuff in America that has been charged with having a racist name or logo.


Aunt Jemima? Don't get us started. Eskimo pies? You're not liking it if you're an Inuit. Crazy Horse Malt Liquor? The Sioux tribe doesn't appreciate the name. And forget about the Frito bandito and Miss Chiquita.

So what the deal? Well, it's hard to say for sure whether or not the term 'jimmies' originally held a negative racial connotation or was later co-opted to fit another generation's witch hunting proclivities.

Regardless, anyone old enough to understand the deeply complex and systemic issues of race relations in America who still enjoys eating sprinkles non-ironically or for a sense of nostalgia is undoubtedly a Cylon hell-bent on enslaving us all. After all, jimmies, sprinkles—whatever you call the flavorless fellows—they're the toppings equivalent to Lennie Small.

But if you like them, who am I to judge?

Just do us all a favor, in light of the nightmare that just took place in Charleston last week.

Please, call them sprinkles.