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Where did that phrase come from - One lump or two?
Stan St. Clair

After reading James Clark’s recent column about missing this year’s Warren County Fair, I guess my mind darted back to memories of the past and all of the sweet times I have spent at the fair. Not only do thousands of Warren countians attend every year, but a lot of folk from DeKalb and other surrounding counties look forward to it. I had already been thinking about things we used to hear but rarely do any more.

“One lump or two?” is an antiquated phrase which derived in England when sugar cubes were used to sweeten tea. The sugar cube was developed in Marovia, now a part of the Czech Republic, by Swiss-born Jakub K. Rad, director of a sugar beet refinery, to please his wife. He patented it in 1841, but it did not make its British debut until 1875. It didn’t take long for them to start being referred to as “lumps.” The phrase appeared in print through the late 19th and early 20th century, as found in Prince Roderick, a biographical tale by British author James B. Richards, published in 1889, on page 85:

“‘This is a strange adventure,’ began Isabel, smiling to set us both at ease. ‘Shall I pour out for you? One lump or two?’” 

By the early 20th century the sugar cube was being used in America to sweeten both tea and coffee.

This expression became a metaphorical joke in slapstick comedy of the 1920s and ’30s for hitting someone over the head causing “lumps” to pop up.

Today tea and coffee are most often sweetened by either sugar or artificial sweeteners in powdered form, served in a bowl or in packets, thus making the term dissolve swiftly into the past as the sugar lumps into the tea.

Yes, we will miss the fair, but we must look forward to the time we are blessed once again by returning the sweet beverage of life.


If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.