I’m aware that people from different parts of this country refer to those tiny bits of candy-coated crunchiness which are placed on ice cream as either “sprinkles,” or “jimmies.” It seems that whenever someone uses the word “jimmies,” however, some smart aleck makes a comment that “jimmies” derives from “Jim Crow” and is therefore derogatory and should never be uttered. Apparently, “jimmies” refers to the chocolate sprinkles, as differentiated from the multi-colored ones, and grew out of a reference to the anti-black Jim Crow laws. That seems a bit fuzzy, so I’m hesitant to believe it. Until I heard it, I had always assumed that the term arose from the ice cream trucks in NJ, many of which bear the title, “Little Jimmy’s.” Does anyone have a better origin of the term, or can anyone prove conclusively that it arose from Jim Crow?
That sounds like the craziest damn thing I ever heard.
Not that I would dismiss it out of hand. I will check but I have not run across it in any books I have read regarding Civil Rights and the various incarnations of Jim Crow.
Wouldn’t put it past them though. Of course I have never heard them called anything but sprinkles before either.
Having lived down here, and having heard a lot of interesting things along those lines, I can say I’d never heard of that one.
So it’s not our fault.
From Word Detective
"Dear Word Detective: Does anyone know the etymology of “jimmies” in the sense of “chocolate sprinkles”? I assume it’s a New England word, since I never heard it when growing up in New Jersey. (No New Jersey jokes, please.) – Larry Davidson, via the internet.
New Jersey jokes? Why would I want to tell jokes about New Jersey? Never heard of such a silly thing. Besides, I just happen to have been born in Princeton, New Jersey myself. My visits to the Garden State in recent years, however, have been limited to the New Jersey Turnpike, a road that rivals, in my opinion, many of the scariest amusement park rides in the land. I have often wished I could meet the folks responsible for the numerous and always amusing surprise lane merges one encounters on the approach to New York City. I have much to say to them.
You’re correct in your assumption that “jimmies” is primarily a New England term for what the rest of the country (and probably the world) know as “sprinkles.” According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, “Jimmies” is actually a trademarked term for a brand of candy (not necessarily chocolate) sprinkles, which they explain are “tiny balls or rod-shaped bits of candy used as a topping for ice-cream, cakes and other sweets.”
Although “Jimmies” is trademarked, my guess is that the term was in generic use for many years prior to the founding of Jimmies as a brand name. And while “jimmies,” meaning chocolate sprinkles, first showed up in English around 1947, “jimmies” has also been used since around 1900 as a short form of the old English slang word “jim-jam.”
“Jim-jam,” in turn, has since the 16th century meant “a trivial article or knick-knack,” so it’s not too great a stretch to see a connection there with candy “jimmies,” which are certainly trivial. “Jim-jams” was later used to mean “little quirks” or “eccentricities,” which also fits in with the candy sense. (Both “jim-jams” and “jimmies” were also used as slang for delirium tremens, but I think we can safely ignore that connection.)
As for the ultimate origin of “jim-jam,” the presumption is that it arose as a nonsense word, meaning nothing, except, of course, to ice cream sundae lovers."