Dessert, pudding, sweet, afters…?!

01-May-2013

It’s a common question once you’ve been learning English a while, and especially if you live in the UK or the States: what is the correct usage of that word ‘dessert’ and all its alternatives: pudding, sweets, afters..?

Well, you’ll be happy to know that in Britain or British English, you can use them all to mean exactly the same thing; that is, the very final (and best) course in a meal. The question ‘Shall we have dessert?’ can equally be phrased ‘Shall we have pudding?’, ‘Shall we have afters?’ and ‘Shall we have a sweet?’ The difference in usage tends to be regional: to call it a ‘sweet’ is more of a Midlands or a Northern term, and ‘afters’ is very much reserved for use by Northerners. However, these terms are known by almost all native speakers, so you will be understood whichever you use.

Interestingly, it also seems to come down to class, and of course this is probably linked to the regional nature of it too. While it is not as simple to say that ‘afters’ and ‘sweet’ are lower-class and ‘dessert’ or ‘pudding’ are upper-class, people do seem to make very conscious decisions when using these words. For example, I was reading an interesting forum about the most popular usage of all these terms, and the overwhelming choice is to call it ‘pudding’ when you’re at home, but you only ever order ‘dessert’ if you’re eating out at a restaurant. I’ve never thought of it this way before, but it’s true: if I’m cooking at home, I’ll say ‘Shall I make a pudding as well?’, but if I’m ordering at a restaurant I’ll say ‘And for dessert I’ll have anything with chocolate in it’. So rather than this being a class difference, it’s more of a formality difference.

Finally, in British English, we also use the word ‘pudding’ to describe a particular style of dessert, so you will see certain dishes that contain the word pudding, such as bread and butter pudding (yum), sticky toffee pudding, rice pudding, and of course Christmas pudding. To confuse matters, we also have some savoury ‘puddings’, which are not at all sweet and eaten with the main course, such as black pudding and Yorkshire pudding. But the useful thing is that you can also use ‘pudding’ just to refer to the whole course of dessert, so it makes things a bit easier!

So, if you’re living in the UK, feel free to say ‘pudding’ when you’re just talking at home or with friends, ‘dessert’ when you’re in a restaurant, and ‘sweet’ or ‘afters’ if you’re anywhere further north than Birmingham. If you’re in the States, however, it gets a bit more complicated…

In America, ‘dessert’ is, just as it is here, used to describe the final course that we all know and love. Use the word ‘sweet’ or ‘afters’ and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy. ‘Pudding’, however, causes a lot of confusion.

In American English, you can’t use the word ‘pudding’ to talk about the entire sweet course of a meal. For Americans, pudding is only used to talk about specific types of creamy or custardy desserts. So, for Americans, a chocolate sundae or a cheesecake would never be called pudding, whereas in the UK you could very safely say “I’m having cheesecake for pudding”. In America, any sweet that is non-creamy or non-custardy is just dessert, never pudding!

I’d also like to mention that the word ‘dessert’ is believed to originate from the French verb desservir, which means ‘to clear the table of all the dishes’, which I think is a lovely way of describing this final, relaxing course of a meal, when everything savoury is finished and the real, sugary, chocolate-y fun can begin!