What better symbol for summer is there than a good old 99? As any Brit knows, a 99 is a wafer cone filled with soft ice-cream and a chocolate flake but to outsiders giving an ice-cream a number might sound a bit bizarre. The 99 is one of etymolgy’s great unsolved mysteries with a real plethora of possible origins coming in left, right and centre and no ‘most likely explanation’ offered by the OED.
Probably the most common false etymology of recent years has been that the 99 gets its name from the price: 99p. Although the ice-creams were, not too long ago, just less than a pound, the term dates back from at least 1935 and the days of pounds, shillings and pence.
1935 Price List Cadbury Bros. Ltd. Aug., ‘99’ C.D.M. Flake (For Ice Cream Trade)..1 gro[ss]..singles..6/6 One price only.
This citation does give us another possibility: it might be that the name comes from the original price (6 shillings, 6 pence) written upside down.
The quote also blows another theory out of the water; some say that the flake chocolate, specially made for ice-creams at a shorter length, measures exactly 99mm. But again, the 99 has been around since long before the days of metric measurement.
Another unlikely idea is that the initials for ice-cream, IC, make the number 99 in Roman numerals, but the conventional way to write 99 would actually be ICIX.
The OED doesn’t give us any clues:
The reason for the name is unknown. The original ice cream contained Cadbury’s ‘99’ Flake (produced specially for the ice-cream trade) but the application to the chocolate may not precede its application to the ice cream. The suggestion that something really special or first class was known as ‘99’ in allusion to an elite guard of ninety-nine soldiers in the service of the King of Italy appears to be without foundation.
This theory that 99 refers to good quality was originally suggested by a Cadbury’s sales manager who worked with Italian soft ice-cream makers in 1928. Unfortunately, the myth actually refers to the Vatican’s Swiss Guard, not the King of Italy’s soldiers, and in reality, there were 105 members, not 99.
Another possible explanation is that 99 actually refers to the wafer cone produced by Askeys. In a similar way to how pasta shapes are graded by number, the wafer cones might have been stamped with a 99.
Finally, Edinburgh ice-cream maker Rudi Arcari claims that her grandfather Stephen invented the ice-cream shortly after opening his ice-cream shop in 1922. According to her, he cut the normal flakes in half, added them to the ice-creams and named it after the address of the shop: 99 Portobello Road.
Then again, let’s not forget that there’s always the possibility that Cadbury’s simply dreamt up the number as a marketing campaign.
Whatever the truth is, we might never know and the 99 might have to remain the nation’s most popular yet most linguistically elusive ice-cream forever.