Several weeks ago, while we were on vacation in D.C. my kids were excited to get "jimmies" or sprinkles on their cones.
We wondered where this term came from. A woman next to us explained that for years in New England, ice cream shops would donate the 10 cents charged for sprinkles to the Jimmy Fund, a charity for children's cancer care at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Over time, she went on, people began calling the "small particles of chocolate or flavored candy sprinkled on ice cream as a topping." jimmies.
A wonderful story, but is it true? Unfortunately the answer seems to be no.
Dictionary.com notes the origins are unknown. This column at www.word-detective.com makes no mention of such an origin, suggesting instead "jimmies" comes from the word "jim-jam" meaning:
"Jim-jam," in turn, has since the 16th century meant "a trivial article or knick-knack,"An article in the Philly Inquirer (free registration required) confirms that at one time "jimmies" was a regsitered trade-mark and gives this explanation for their name:
Back in the 1930s, the Just Born candy company of Bethlehem produced a topping called chocolate grains. The man who ran the machine that made these chocolate grains was named Jimmy Bartholomew
"Thus, his product became known as jimmies," said Ross Born, the chief executive officer. He was told this story by his grandfather and company founder, Sam Born. Just Born registered jimmies as its trademark, and continued producing jimmies until the mid-1960s - which is why the name was so popular here.
But it also notes a 1986 NPR commentary by poet John Ciardi which dates "jimmies" to about 1922, suggesting the term was in popular use well before it was trademarked.
"From the time I was able to run to the local ice cream store clutching my first nickel, which must have been around 1922, no ice cream cone was worth having unless it was liberally sprinkled with jimmies."
The only online reference to the Jimmy Fund story I can find on-line is in the comments to this guide to "Boston English." This blog refers to a "jimmie fund" in Western Mass today, but the proceeds go to Big Brother/Big Sister.
Another comment in the Boston English entry raises the question of timing. If the use of "jimmies" predates the Jimmy Fund, that would be rule out Jimmy Fund as the origin.
Indeed, the Jimmy Fund Website dates the Jimmy Fund from 1948, almost certainly after the term "jimmies" was in common use.
So the origin of "jimmies" is not related to the Jimmy Fund. I do think it's possible that at some point one or more ice cream stores in New England did have "jimmie funds" where money from purchase of sprinkles was donated to the Jimmy Fund. In retrospect, it seems like that might be an obvious idea, and once it happened it would be easy to conflate the fund-raiser with the origin of the name.
The also circulating on the internet story that "jimmies" is short for "Jim Crows" and applies only to chocolate, not multi-colored sprinkles, is also, in this case thankfully, without basis.