BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Friday, 28 July 2006, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Why are 99s called that?
Queue at Mr Whippy van
So that'll be 99s all round then?

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

The taste of summer is surely the 99 - soft ice cream in a cone with a Flake. Many and various are the theories as to how it got this name.

In the UK everybody knows what comes with a 99, but a newcomer to these shores who wonders at the name's provenance is sure to be baffled.

Baby with a 99
1935 Cadbury's price list: '99 CDM Flake (For Ice Cream Trade) 1 gro[ss] singles 6/6. One price only'
1936 advert: 'Try a 99 ice cream with Cadbury's Dairy Milk Flake chocolate'
1951 advert: 'Say 99 - Janette Scott, child film star, like millions of other children and grown-ups, knows that the best way to eat ice cream is in Askeys 99 Cake Cones'
Earlier this week, a Magazine reader from London wrote in to ask this very question, prompting a flurry of responses - all positing different theories. So which is right?

The ice cream in question has gone by that name since 1930, when Cadbury's launched a shorter version of its Flake bar - called a Flake 99 - for the ice cream trade.

Which does rather seem to blow one theory - that the bar is exactly 99mm long - out of the water. The UK is only now edging towards metrification - 70-odd years ago, everything was in imperial measures.

Ditto the suggestion that back in the day they cost 99p. True in the 1990s, but in 1930, nothing cost 99p - it was pre-decimalisation, remember.

Another theory goes that the initials of ice cream are IC, which is one way to write 99 in Roman numerals. But the convention is to write it XCIX - but it's possible this was ignored or not known.

Word hunt

What says the Oxford English Dictionary?

    "Ninety-nine n. (also 99) Brit. an ice cream cone made with soft ice cream with a stick of flaky chocolate inserted into it (as 99 a proprietary name in the United Kingdom); (formerly) an ice cream wafer sandwich containing a similar stick of chocolate; a wafer cone or chocolate stick for an ice cream (disused)."

The dictionary can shed no light on its origins: "The reason for the name is unknown... the application to the chocolate may not precede its application to the ice cream. The suggestion that something really special or first class was known as '99' in allusion to an elite guard of 99 soldiers in the service of the King of Italy appears to be without foundation."

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
A 99 without a Flake, Gordon?
This was a theory put forward by a Cadbury's sales manager who worked with Italian soft ice cream makers in County Durham in 1928, who noticed they were cutting regular Flakes in half to add to ice creams.

But BBC Two's Balderdash and Piffle - which aimed to find out more about words listed in the OED as "origins unknown" - found that the myth actually referred to the Vatican's Swiss Guard, which traditionally had 105 members and now has 100.

One theory the programme-makers discussed was that the name may have come originally from the cone - a company called Askeys (see factbox above) made a cone stamped "99", much as pasta shapes are graded by number. But they concluded that it may have been dreamt up by Cadbury as a marketing slogan, and the OED does not recognise the Askeys theory.

After the series aired in January, Edinburgh ice cream maker Rudi Arcari claimed her grandfather Stephen invented the treat in the 1920s and named it after the address of the family's shop at 99 Portobello High St.

"My dad always said that my granddad broke a Flake in half - before the short 99 Flakes were manufactured - and stuck it in an ice cream. We're not sure of the exact date he did that, but it was not long after he opened the shop in 1922."

The OED has invited her to provide more information, but in the meantime, its entry for the 99 remains "origin unknown".

Some of your comments on this story:

I spotted this coincidence - or maybe not - from your 1935 Cadbury's price list: "99 CDM Flake (For Ice Cream Trade) 1 gro[ss] singles 6/6. One price only." Is 99 is the cost, 6 shillings and 6 pence upside-down?
Ian F, Raleigh, NC

My father was in the ice cream business for about 50 years, most of that time spent running a popular shop in Bathgate known locally as Jock's Cafe. Apart from a 99 we also sold a 66, which was two Askeys wafers, with ice cream and a flake sandwiched between. The equivalent, but with a single nougat wafer was known as a "black man". We also sold "oysters", with or without a flake.
Paul Tricki, Edinburgh

When I was a child in Sunderland, in the late 70s, we used to have "a 99 with monkey's blood". The monkey's blood was raspberry syrup. So delicious, but if I ask for it now I just get stared at.
Nicola, London

When I was a boy in the 1970s, a 99 Flake was a double cone filled with soft ice cream and a half Flake inserted into each. The 99 was the double cone, and the Flake the chocolate insertion - two components of a grand ice cream ensemble capable of satisfying the appetite of the greediest six-year-old. And it cost 15p.
Douglas Bulloch, London

I was told it was because a Flake was made up with 99 layers of chocolate and this was an ad campaign in the 30s.
Melody, Daventry, England

If you look at the advertising pictures from the 1930s for Flakes, end on the curls of the chocolate look like an interconnected collection of number nines.
Alex Batterbee, London

The UK certainly used some metric measures in the 1930s - for car engine capacities, for example. Has anyone checked if a 30s 99 flake really was 99mm long? I'm sure they cost 9d in my 99 eating days in the 60s but even that would have been a lot of money in the 1930s.
Michael, Holywood, N Ireland

For an extra special treat you could always ask for a "bunny's ears" - a 99 with two Flakes.
Chris, St Albans UK

I heard that the Flake was number 99 on the order form of Cadbury's products.
Mike Chiocci, Wigan, England

I stood behind a very confused foreign person at an ice cream van while the seller tried to explain that a 99 didn't cost 99p.
Louisa Sims, London

Surely it's called a 99 because that's the shape you use when putting the ice cream into the cone? You do a nine figure starting at the tail, and then another to top it off.
Jamie Sugg, Soham, UK

In New Zealand, 99s are called snow cones. Or soft-freeze ice creams. Sorry, it's been a while since I was there.
Isabella, Sheffield

In New Zealand they're called cream freezes, but aren't nearly as popular as scoops of ice cream in a cone (hokey pokey, goody goody gum drop, or boysenberry - my favourites) dipped in chocolate, a "brown derby".
Paula, Glasgow, ex-Chichi NZ

My friend believes that it is called 99 because it takes 99 seconds to eat.
Alfred Mani, Stevenage, Hertfordshire

Could it be that possibly the flake, is stuck into the cone at a 99 degree angle?
Leigh, Hertfordshire

Well using my trusty protractor on the one I have just bought, it's about 60 degrees, and we're not talking about the ambient temperature.
Simon Lovatt, Birmingham, UK

I grew up in Cornwall, where proper scooped Cornish ice cream is commonly sold from ice cream vans, and one with a Flake in was and is always called a 99. It can be difficult to get the Flake in, mind you.
James, Coventry, England

We had a family ice cream business for over 70 years. There used to be 99 Flakes in each of the boxes we received from Cadbury's and so we always thought that was why they were called 99s. We used to pair them with the Askeys 99 cornet.
Julian, Wokingham

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific