Looking in the shop window of a little bakery in Groningen, the Netherlands, I saw an interesting item for sale, a koekje. Koekjes are small cakes. Cookies are essentially small cakes. Could the two be related?
Although it might be convenient to think that cookie must just come from cook, the reality is that cookies do actually descend from the Dutch koekjes. So in the great debate between the British biscuit and the American cookie, it turns out that the cookie isn’t even American at all, but Dutch.
Cookie was first recorded in American English in 1703 and it came across the Atlantic with the many Dutch immigrants who arrived in the 17th century. It came from the diminutive form of cake, koek, which was derived from kaka in Old Norse in the early 13th century, which in turn originated from West Germanic *kokon-.
Biscuit, conversely, is not Germanic but Latinate. For a long time (between the 16th and the 18th century), biscuit was actually spelled bisket. The spelling was altered under the influence of the Old Italian cognate biscotto. Both words came from Latin (panis) bis coctus which literally means ‘bread twice cooked’. Like our modern-day Italian biscotti, the original biscuits were crisp and dry because they were cooked in a two-part process: they were first baked and then dried out in a slow oven.
On the other hand, the original cookies were not crisp or dry or twice-baked but soft and would rise slightly in the oven. Cookies used a rising agent; biscuits did not. On this occasion, as time progressed, it was not the language itself that changed but the confectionary items that the terms defined: cookies and biscuits converged.
So the next time the cookie/biscuit debate crops up in conversation, it might be useful to add that a cookie is actually a cake, a biscuit is more like biscotti, a cookie is really Dutch, and a biscuit is in fact Italian.