Bear claw: A large sweet pastry shaped like a bear’s paw. It’s usually made with yeast, filled with almond paste and raisins, and glazed with sugar or an egg wash.
I’ve known these things as “bear claws” since I was a child, but it wasn’t till a couple of weeks ago that I learned that the term bear claw originated right here in the Bay Area. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) gives the citation:
1942 AN&Q 2.55 San Francisco CA, Another variety [of “snail” pastry], with raisin filling, is (from its shape) known as a “bear-claw.”
There’s no further etymology, but it pleases me to think that the pastry was created and named to honor the California state animal, the grizzly bear, or the UC Berkeley Golden Bears across the bay.*
(In the citation, AN&Q stands for American Notes and Queries, a defunct offshoot of Notes and Queries. The parent journal was founded in England in 1849 to publish academic correspondence about folklore and literature. There’s a short but delightful Wikipedia entry about Notes and Queries that includes the journal’s original motto: “When found, make a note of.” The saying was the catchphrase of Captain Cuttle, a character in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son.)
I had found my way to the DARE website because the dictionary has been in the news lately. Next month, with the publication of its fifth and final volume (Sl through Z), DARE will finally be complete—half a century after it was conceived.
In his language column for the Boston Globe, Ben Zimmer described the long process:
When Fred Cassidy, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, was named chief editor of a dictionary project to track American dialects in 1962, he had a faster timetable in mind. The Dictionary of American Regional English began in earnest a few years later, when 80 fieldworkers armed with elaborate questionnaires spread out to more than a thousand communities around the country. Some researchers drove green Dodge vans called “Word Wagons,” equipped with clunky reel-to-reel tape recorders—the better to document every uff-da (a Norwegian exclamation in the Upper Midwest) and pitch-in (an Indiana term for a potluck).
Read more about the DARE Word Wagons here.
DARE is expensive: the list price of Volume V is $85, and earlier volumes go for $89 to $124.50. There are no e-editions, but the publisher, Harvard University Press, is planning to launch an online interactive version in 2013. In the meantime, you can see 100 entries, from “Adam’s housecat” to “sky blue,” on the DARE website, which also publishes a word of the month. This month’s word: “Dick’s hatband.”
* Do you live outside California and call this pastry something else? Leave a comment here and share it.