Roll, bap, bun? Britain's favourite term for its lunchtime loaf revealed

·5-min read
Bun - Getty Images
Bun - Getty Images

It is the most British of arguments and triggers a vast amount of debate, but the name of the humble soft, round bread roll is a contentious and divisive topic.

'Cob' advocates clash with 'barm' defenders, while 'bap' supporters grapple with 'bun' defenders. But scientists have finally settled the debate, with the plain "bread roll" moniker being revealed as Britain’s most popular term.

Data from more than 14,000 native English speakers, gathered via a questionnaire from university academics, was used to compare the UK's regional lexicon differences.

The accent analysis, from researchers at Lancaster, York and New York universities, also probed the thorny issues of where the north-south divide in England is and what is the correct term for an evening meal.

The unassuming baked good, ideal for buffets and picnics, has long been a divisive matter, with at least eight different names employed around the country.

Overall, bread roll was the favourite, driven by almost universal popularity in the south of England, southern Wales and Scotland, according to the research.

"'Roll' is apparently the normative choice," the researchers state. "[It is] the most chosen variant and the one with the widest spread across the country, predominating in the South and in Scotland."

'Bun' was the favourite of the North East, while 'bap' dominated in north Wales. Other parts of the north of England were divided up into a patchwork of different labels.

'Cob' rules supreme in the East Midlands, with a hotspot around Nottingham and Derby, while 'bap' is king in the West Midlands, and 'barm' dominates in Manchester and Liverpool.

'Muffin is perhaps the most geographically localised'

"Barm is confined to the North West, comprising an area that runs from Manchester westward to Liverpool and northward into the western half of Lancashire (from Blackpool to Preston)," the researchers say.

"Tea cake spans the eastern half of Lancashire (Blackburn, Burnley) and the Western half of West Yorkshire (Bradford and areas around Leeds).

"Muffin is perhaps the most geographically localised, confined to East Manchester and areas such as Oldham and Rochdale.

"Cob is largely concentrated in the Midlands around Nottinghamshire. Batch is used in two very small areas: Liverpool, in the North West, and Coventry, in the West Midlands.

Watch: This toddler shows what it's like having parents with different accents

"Bap is fairly widespread, but is most concentrated in Staffordshire, the West Midlands (Stoke-on-Trent, Birmingham), and North Wales."

The scientists also resolved another contentious topic: the precise location of England’s north-south divide.

They used the words "foot'' and "cut" for this, as they are seen as the litmus test to see if a person speaks in a traditionally northern or southern way.

To a true northerner, these words rhyme. To a southerner, they sound very different because of a hard-sounding vowel in "cut".

This method revealed that the north-south divide bisects the two East Midlands cities of Derby and Leicester.

The split was traditionally an invisible line from the Wash in the East to the Severn estuary in the West - "essentially dividing England into two halves", scientists say.

This divide has been described as "remarkably stable", but a new study shows signs that it is creeping further north, with more people in the Midlands aligning themselves with the southern way of speaking.

Data show that Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are the last remaining bastions of proud Midlands northernness. Meanwhile, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Herefordshire are among the counties switching to the southern ways of speaking.

'More southerly locales show very different behaviour'

Four in five people in the North today say that 'cut' and 'foot' rhyme, compared to just one in 20 in the South. However, in the transitional region of the Midlands, the picture is murkier.

Derby, the proud city in the heart of the East Midlands, is still stoutly northern in its dialect, with 79 per cent of people saying that the two words rhyme. The figure is 76 per cent for the slightly more geographically northern Nottinghamshire.

But the study found that "some of the more southerly locales show very different behaviour".

Leicester, for example, now sounds more southern than northern, with just 43 per cent using the traditionally northern pronunciation, with the majority claiming 'strut' and 'foot' do not rhyme, failing the northerner test.

The decline of the northern tongue is even more pronounced in Northamptonshire, where a paltry seven per cent of people speak in a northern way, in line with the rest of the South.

In the 1600s, 'cut' and 'strut' rhymed with foot nationwide, but then an unexplained phenomenon occurred called the "foot-strut split", where the vowel in 'cut'/'strut' was sharpened in the South, with northerners still using the traditional and historically accurate version.

"This change never occurred in the north of England, which means that for northern speakers these words rhyme with each other," the researchers write in their study, published in the Journal of Linguistic Geography.

And while the North is divided in its name for a 'cob', it unites when it comes to naming the evening meal. 'Tea', as the northerners know, is the most common term for the post-work meal.

"In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the wealthy upper classes ate their largest meal later in the evening, calling it dinner," the researchers say.

"The working classes, on the other hand, would have dinner during the day and high tea in the evening as a source of sustenance after returning home from a long day of work."

The divide between 'dinner' and 'tea' is not clearly defined as the 'foot-strut' situation, but there is still a "very clear pattern".

The split is almost 50/50 in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Norfolk, whereas 95 per cent of people in London use 'dinner'.

Two-thirds of northerners use 'tea', data show, but this is skewed by richer people in the North "resisting the regional form", the researchers say.

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