Unusual Word of the Day: Rusk

I am in Durban, South Africa, staying with friends who are second-generation Indian immigrants. While having no nostalgia for the empire, they keep the British fashion of afternoon tea, at which I am offered a “rusk”. It’s a tasty baked goodie, much harder than a scone, and cut into rectangles.

I have never heard this word during countless tea times in Britain, nor have I heard it used in the States. Why isn’t this little bit of bread called some variant of biscuit/biscotti?

The answer may be the Portuguese influence in Southern Africa, which is reflected in many place names and other words today. “Rosca” means roll or breadtwist in that language, which may have evolved into “rusk”.

Wherever the word came from, I must say: Yum.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

29 thoughts on “Unusual Word of the Day: Rusk”

  1. It’s likely regionally dependent. I had heard of it when I was looking for it, but haven’t been able to locate any in our vicinity (i.e., the eastern part of Scotland).

    The reason why I was looking for it was that I was familiar with the German variant, called zwieback (a word that basically means, “baked twice”). It is used as food for children (which is why I was looking for it) and people with stomach problems. It is very popular in Germany, and its main producer, Brandt, is a household name. I suspect that this is because Germans eat lots of bread normally, and Zwieback is basically a more chewable and digestable type of bread, especially if you soak it in milk.

    Farley’s Rusk in Britain is supposedly often used for the same purpose, but so far I’ve only seen it in Edinburgh (which is a bit out of the way for me). Also, because rusk/zwieback tends to contain quite a bit of sugar, you have to be careful with not overusing it; it can be difficult to integrate with a balanced diet (though there are low-sugar versions).

  2. The word ‘rusk’ in this sense is familiar to me as a Brit. (The same word also means a wheat-based substance that gets put in sausages and the like in the UK.) It’s just that in the UK, you wouldn’t get served a rusk at tea time because it’s generally considered toddler food.

  3. It looks like mandelbroit, to me. (Katja, is mandelbroit (mandelbrot?) a German treat, as well?)

    1. It doesn’t quite look like that to me.

      Mandelbroit (“almond bread”) is not usually baked in a rectangular shape, but more “bread-shaped” ones, so the individual cookies look like bread slices. It’s quite similar to biscotti.

    2. You can find mandelbrot (and recipes for it [1]) in Germany, but as far as I know, it has its origins in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. It’s a different kind of food, though; rusk does not contain almonds, while almonds are a defining ingredient for mandelbrot (mandel = almond, brot = bread in both Yiddish and German).

      (At this point, I have to caution again that while I lived in Germany for five years as a teenager, have friends and relatives there, and do speak the language — so I can look up stuff on German internet sites! –, I’m simply not sufficiently immersed in German culture to make ex cathedra statements about German cultural norms and habits; so, take what I say with an appropriate amount of salt; I happen to know about zwieback because I got to eat it a couple of times as a teenager when I was sick.)

      [1] I would have included a link, but the blog software keeps silently eating my comments if I do.

  4. This is a Dutch specialty–Holland Rusk, although it sounds like the one you had was modified through local custom, as most Holland Rusks are plain cold toasted English muffin-sized (though much finer-textured) rounds.

  5. Kurt Wallander and his cop colleagues are constantly eating these things at their coffee breaks. I assumed it was a Swedish word untranslated, but see from the other comments that it was just translated into an English word not used in America.

  6. Plenty of rusks here in the US of A. Anyhoo next time you are in a Greek grocery seek out the barley rusks from Crete. (But not if you wear dentures)

  7. I’m pretty sure I first came across the word in Mary Poppins, which seems quintessentially English to me.

  8. ‘a dry rusk’ has been traditional in our family as a term for a scant and miserable meal, fortunately used only whimsically, since we have not been reduced to dry rusks. But it has certainly been a familiar term. ‘What’s for dinner?”I’m afraid there’s nothing but dry rusks tonight.’

    I can’t imagine offering one to company, though – dry and tasteless. That’s part of the rhetorical attraction. (Obviously South African usage – and I hope baking – differs.)

  9. KH’s speculation is correct, according to etymonline which claims that the derivation is
    1590s, from Sp. or Port. rosca “roll, twist of bread,” lit. “coil, spiral,” of unknown origin, perhaps from a pre-Latin Iberian word.

  10. Growing up in Chicago there was plenty of rusk around. We had the German variety, zweiback (which we pronounced zweeback with a long e), which was about the shape of a biscotti but with a very different taste, very sweet. We also what was called Holland Rusk on the box which was round. They were easily available in our local, non-chain store on the North side.

    Haven’t seen them for years, but, I haven’t been looking

    A check of Amazon turns up dozens of rusks. Here’s the first one that turned up. http://www.amazon.com/Reese-Holland-Light-3-5-Ounce-Packages/dp/B000FEDHHE/ref=sr_1_1?s=grocery&ie=UTF8&qid=1348245684&sr=1-1&keywords=rusk

    1. P.S. The above comments about how hard rusk is are correct. Back on the North side we just about always ate them by dipping in milk or tea to soften. Yummmm.

  11. FWIW it’s called rusk in Japanese too (“rasuku” with the final u dropped, if you want to get pedantic), which supports the idea that the word is Portuguese.

  12. I first became acquainted with “rusk”(Holland Rusk) as the base of “Tournados of Beef” – “Tower of Beef.” Basically a rusk and two butterflied filets (prime please) layered with some kind of paste (mushroom wine and shallots will do, but I’ve done it with a mild anchovy concotion used with care) between each layer and a nicely sauteed large mushroom cap on top covered with a Bernaise sauce made with sherry and tarragon. Yeah, I know, there is a lot of cholesterol, but the sex afterwards is always incredible.

    I’ve always been able to find rusks at a large supermarket – I’ve never been able to us up a package as I’ve not figured out another use for them.

    1. Yeah, I know, there is a lot of cholesterol, but the sex afterwards is always incredible.

      As health advice goes, I am putting this in the top 1%

  13. So, just to cause a little trouble … who really came up with the idea of afternoon tea, I wonder? Or, is it not really a tea unless you eat scones? In my family, we are trying to come up with tea foods that aren’t made out of refined flour. Will that count, or not?

    1. Apparently (according to what I was told by a seemingly knowledgeable gentleman here in the UK), afternoon tea was originally simply a/the third meal of the day between breakfast and (a late) dinner.

      French-speaking countries do also have an afternoon tea; I don’t know where that originated. German-speaking countries did traditionally have three meals a day (called Frühstück = early piece [of bread], Mittagessen = midday meal, and Abendessen = evening meal); there, afternoon coffee (Kaffeetrinken, Kaffeeklatsch, Kaffeekränzchen), i.e. coffee served with pastries or cake, developed as a social event, primarily in Saxony and Austria.

      An interesting commonality between all these various types of afternoon meals is indeed that they are customarily served with pastries. I suspect that this was to give your blood sugar a kick after a long day.

      1. Bavarians traditionally take a second breakfast, predictably called zweites Früstück, mid-morning, although I doubt the tradition is followed much among urban office workers. Weißwurst is the classic fare.

      2. Why I like the tea tradition: My own British prandial schedule is a true cooked British breakfast early in the morning and dinner (meaning “a big lunch” in America) at around 1pm and a light supper (not dinner, supper) 7:30pm ish. It generally works except for occasional late afternoon hunger, for which afternoon tea is just the right bridge through the workday’s end.

  14. My Webster’s New College Dictionary gives the etymology as Sp. “rosca,” coil, as in a coiled loaf.

    Some google books searches show that the word was established in English no later than 1699, meaning a twice-baked bread that kept well and therefore was often taken to sea. With that early date it’s unlikely that transmission came through southern Africa. Given the maritime connection, it’s more likely a transmittal through the Mediterranean.

    From the Transactions of The American Philosophical Society, Vol. 2, 1786:
    “The ship biscuit is too hard for some sets of teeth… But rusk is better; for being made of good fermented bread, sliced and baked and second time, the pieces imbibe the water easily … By the way, rusk is the true original biscuit, so prepared to keep for sea, biscuit in French signifying twice baked.”


    From An History of Ireland, from the Year 1599 to 1603, by Fynys Moryson, Vol. II, published in 1735:
    “Don Jean says privately, that the Lord Deputy was born in a happy hour, for he will have the town, unless they be relieved from the North. They have nothing but rusk and water. They have but four pieces of artillery…”


    A Voyage Round the World, by Way of the Great South Sea, by George Shelvock, published 1726:

    “In the afternoon they returned, and brought all the bales, boxes, chests, and portmanteaus, etc., that were in her, and also all the rice, with a large quantity of sugar, molasses, and chocolate, and about 7000 weight of very good rusk, with all the eatables and stores.”


    A New Voyage Round the World, by William Dampier, published 1699:

    “The 30th day of May, the Governor sent his last present, which was some hogs, a jar of pickled mangoes, a jar of excellent pickled fish, and a jar of fine rusk, or bread of fine wheat flower, baked like bisket, but not so hard.”


  15. PS- the “Governor” in that last quotation from 1699 is the Governor of the Spanish colony on Guam, which makes sense since the origin of the word is Spanish or Portuguese. The author clearly feels that the word is an English word, not Spanish. But he also feels the need to explain what it means to his readership, so he believes that except perhaps among sailors and others who had contact with the Spanish the word would be unknown.

  16. One of the first solid foods my kids have had is called “rice rusks,” which according to a little searching come from Australia.

    1. Yes, I think Keith’s unfamiliarity with the item comes from his not having kids recently. As of about eight or nine years ago, rusks were all the rage (in pretentious places like the the westside of L.A., at least) as a teething food.

  17. The OED has a citation from 1595, from “Drake’s Voyage”: “”The provision was … seven or eight cakes of bisked [biscuit] or rusk for a man.”

    Sir Francis Drake made the second circumnavigation of the globe in 1577-1580 – after Magellan.

    And the OED says that the Spanish original is “rosca de mar” – sea-biscuit. It was a food that could be stored for months or years on board ship.

    So it looks like the English picked up the food and the word from the Spanish when the two nations both set out on their voyages of exploration.

    BTW, that “History of Ireland” quotation that I gave above is apparently from 1617 – the date of the book I gave (1735) is an excerpt from a much large work written more than 100 years earlier.

  18. In Australia the modern usage refers to a small finger of some bread like dough that is designed for babies for teething. It is extremely hard and does not get soft even after hours of baby slobber. It serves the same purpose as an old boot with possibly a slightly higher nutrition factor.

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