What’s the Difference Between Sprinkles and Jimmies?

This goes beyond rainbow versus chocolate.

When you walk into an ice cream shop, there are many decisions you have to make. Not only are you considering flavor, but cup or cone, waffle or sugar, and a dizzying array of toppings.

Another thing to consider: Are they called sprinkles or jimmies?

The sprinkles vs. jimmies debate

Though the term sprinkles seems to be more widely used, regionality comes into play when it comes to this ice cream topping. According to Philadelphia’s WHYY publication Billy Pennthe term jimmies is used widely in Pittsburgh and Boston and parts of the Midwest, though sprinkles is heard more in New York.

But it’s not always so cut and dry. A 2006 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee survey reported that some respondents use different terms when it comes to length, color, or application (jimmies on ice cream and sprinkles on donuts, for example).

Where did the term jimmies originate?

Another big difference is that older customer tend to use the term jimmies, leading us to wonder where the term came from in the first place.

According to the Boston Globe, one potentially viable origin story for the sprinkles term comes from confectionary company Just Born—the monster best known for Easter’s most divisive treat, the Peep. The company doesn’t give a hard date on the invention, but credits the name to the employee who invented them (his name was Jimmy, obviously).

An archived snapshot of Brigham’s Ice Cream’s website puts the date around the early ’30s, and also credits one James Bartholomew with the invention. Beth Kimmerle, author of Candy: The Sweet History, told the Globe that she believed the term came about as a simple, cute way to brand the new sweet—similar to Hershey’s coining its chocolate drops Kisses.

Is the term jimmies controversial?

There have been some rumors that the term jimmies was named after Jim Crow laws, but that has been debunked by multiple sources, including Snopes, which labels it “probably false.” 

However, in a Twitter poll conducted by Billy Penn, nearly 16% of its respondents perceive the term jimmies as racist. So while it’s very possible jimmies’ origins are innocent, the term certainly comes with its own loaded history, whether misunderstood or not.

What are sprinkles called around the world?

If you want to dig even deeper into the name debate, look at what the topping is called around the world. According to Mr. Sprinkles, they are called “hundreds and thousands” in England, and French bakers in the 18th century first conceived of sprinkles as nonpareils (think movie theater Sno-Caps), considering these treats “without parallel.”

Interestingly, sprinkles are used as a topping for bread in both the Netherlands—referred to as “hagelslag,” or “hail-storm”—and in Australia, where it’s called “fairy bread” and made with the rainbow version.

So is there a real difference between sprinkles and jimmies?

When in doubt, we consult Merriam-Webster in these situations. Apparently, the dictionary definition for jimmies used to be “decorative things,” though that has been adapted today to “tiny rod-shaped bits of usually chocolate-flavored candy often sprinkled on ice cream.”

Sprinkles can, of course, refer to a light rain, or “small particles of candy used as a topping (as on ice cream).” With these definitions in mind, sprinkles feels more all-inclusive. Maybe they’re rainbow, maybe they’re chocolate, and they could be a topping for ice cream, donuts, or even fairy bread.

So maybe next time you’re pondering, just go with sprinkles. Feels more whimsical anyway.

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Wil Fulton is a former senior development producer for Thrillist. Follow him @wilfulton.