If you ever wanted proof that marmalade is essentially a breakfast food, the phrase ‘marmalade dropper’ is that proof. Invented, one has to assume, by either P G Wodehouse or the Daily Telegraph (it sounds even better if said in a slightly bluff, retired-colonel sort of voice), it refers to news so startling that if read at breakfast it would make you drop your toast and marmalade in shock.

I first saw it in an interview in the Evening Standard, when Shirley Maclaine revealed without much preamble to interviewer Sebastian Shakespeare that she’d once slept with three people in one day. Boris Johnson is a great source of marmalade-droppers; I bet the Fergie toe-sucking incident caused an avalanche of marmalade in Buck House; and my personal best would be the revelation that John Major and Edwina Currie once had an affair, which brought howls of horror and derision in equal measure across Britain’s breakfast tables and put us off our toast altogether.

A quick rootle around on Google shows that it’s in popular and regular usage – so much so that there’s an entire website devoted to startling news that is actually called (Or was – last entry was last June, which makes me feel better about the cobwebs forming on my own blog.)

Apparently the Mail Online used it in a headline on 24 June 2003 – ‘The big marmalade-dropper was Margaret’s new hairdo’ - for an article by Quentin Letts in which he described Margaret Beckett’s new haircut as falling somewhere between early Lady Diana and Sir Bobby Charlton and sitting ‘just above the ears like a well-trained, moulting Pekingese’, a description that might have caused Ms Beckett to drop her own marmalade.

More recently Toby Young’s self-proclaimed marmalade-dropper revealed that various supporters of Gordon Brown were plotting against Tony Blair from the start, but that doesn’t make the grade in my book, being a) dull and b) hardly a revelation to anyone unless they were living in la-la land. It would have been more surprising to hear that they weren’t plotting against him. 

As always with Google, several new threads emerge from my original enquiry. One dictionary website offers to translate the phrase into German, Dutch, French etc., which is a kind but rather pointless offer as there is no such equivalent. Most people outside the UK don’t care when they eat their marmalade – if they even have any. However, the transalation fails to materialise, so I put it into babelfish and get:

  • confiture d'oranges-compte-gouttes (French)
  • marmellata d'arance-contagoccia (Italian)
  • Marmeladetropfenzähler (German)

Which I’m fairly certain are just literal translations that miss the spirit of the thing. But quite good fun nonetheless. (The US ‘translation’ is ‘coffee-spitter’, which is graphic if not very elegant, and ‘muffin-choker’, which is quite startling in itself. Best to move on, methinks.)

Wordspy thinks the earliest citation was in Gordon Burn’s book Fullalove (1995), as used by the narrator, burned-out hack Norman Miller. So was this where it was invented, I wonder? Feels a bit recent to me. Answers on a piece of toast, please.


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