‘frogspawn’ (tapioca pudding)

In British and Irish English, the noun frogspawn is a jocular appellation for tapioca pudding (also for sago pudding).

This appellation, which originated in schoolchildren’s slang, refers to the fact that both tapioca pudding and sago pudding very much resemble frogspawn—i.e., a soft substance like jelly which contains the eggs of a frog.

This resemblance has been mentioned in many texts—these are four examples:

1-: In The Reminiscences of Frank Gillard (Huntsman) with the Belvoir Hounds 1860 to 1896 (London: Edward Arnold, 1898), by the British artist and author Cuthbert Bradley (1861-1941):

Many an amusing story is told of the old squire of Leadenham […]. A staunch fox-preserver, in his enthusiasm for the chase it is said that he once had a whole fox served up for dinner. But a better story is told of him when a brother sportsman went to dine, and for a practical joke he had a fox’s tongue garnished and sent up on a dish. Under an assumed name it was thoroughly enjoyed by the unsuspecting guest! But on this occasion he met more than a match in his old friend the Rev. Thomas Heathcote, who returned the compliment by asking the Colonel to dine, and gave him a Roland for an Oliver. A dainty dish was set before him in the shape of a tapioca pudding, of which the Colonel partook. “I am glad you enjoyed it,” the host remarked, “for it was not tapioca at all, but frog spawn off my pike pond.”

2-: In Frogs and Frog-spawn, an anonymous contribution to Nature Notes and Queries, published in The Northern Whig (Belfast, Antrim, Ireland) of Monday 16th April 1917:

While hunting around a small pond I came across a whole colony of Frogs, all feverishly busy fulfilling the call of their kind. The result of [t]his wooing was quite obvious, as the water was impregnated with frog-spawn over the space of a few yards. In passing I may say I gathered some of this, which resembles the common kitchen delicacy—i.e., sago pudding, except that in each transparent globule there is the nucleus of a Frog.

3-: In Early in the Morning: Springtime Cheer, by ‘Romany’ 1, published in The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Friday 24th March 1939:

Looking down into the pond I saw masses of frogspawn. Eggs are usually beautiful things, but the frog is no artist. Perhaps it is that the masses of wobbly transparent jelly always reminds me of sago pudding, which I very much dislike!

1 ‘Romany’ was the pseudonym of the Reverend George Bramwell Evens (1884-1943), a British radio broadcaster and writer on countryside and natural history.

4-: In For our junior readers, by Ian Conroyd and ‘Aunty Pog’, published in the Croydon Times and Surrey County Mail (Croydon, Surrey, England) of Friday 20th April 1956:

Do you, like us feel that “If frogspawn come, can spring be far behind?” Just as soon as we see the first bit of jelly stuff that reminds us horribly of tapioca and sago pudding floating round in a pond or a ditch, we feel that sunshine and warmth cannot be far away. Frogspawn may be ugly stuff, and mummy may detest having the stuff in a jam-jar on the kitchen windows, but nevertheless, it is a reminder that spring is here, and because of that we are fond of it as of the snowdrops and violets and pussy willow.

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the noun frogspawn used as a jocular appellation for tapioca pudding (also for sago pudding) are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the column Snap-Shots, published in The Bournemouth Guardian and Hants and Dorset Advertiser (Bournemouth, Hampshire, England) of Saturday 5th November 1921:

“What’s the second course?” enquired the new girl at boarding school.
“Hymn No. 450” was the reply.
On reference it began “A battle hard to fight” (otherwise “stickjaw”).
At the same school tapioca is known as “frogspawn.”

2-: From The Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 10th June 1940:

A Touch of Colour
PAINTING THE PUDDING

It has been easier, in the past, to pander to some extent to children’s food prejudices in the pudding course especially if it has been known that they were in any case getting plenty of milk. But now stewed fruits with their comparatively high sugar requirements can no longer nearly oust milk puddings from a nursery dinner table where “a proper pudding” is expected.
Rice pudding has been made acceptable by being cooked in a covered basin so that no skin is formed, but once a week is deemed often enough for it to appear. A bid for approval was made with spherical tapioca flavoured with chocolate, but although the flavour was satisfactory the dish could not live down its immediately won description of “frog spawn,” a description which everyone had to admit was appropriate.

3-: From The Jungle is Neutral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1949), by the British-Army office Frederick Spencer Chapman (1907-1971), who spent three and a half years (1942-45) in the Malayan jungle:

In the same garden we also found plenty of tapioca growing; a plant whose tuberous roots were to be my staple diet for the next three years.
The tapioca is the same as the manioc and cassava of South America and was introduced to Malaya from that continent. The dictionary defines tapioca as: ‘Grain prepared from cassava for use in puddings, etc. (Brazil)’ and the word inevitably conjures up a picture of the milk pudding which we used to call frog-spawn at school.

4-: From the column By the Way, by ‘Commentator’, published in the Northern Daily Mail (Hartlepool, Durham, England) of Thursday 18th May 1950:

Schools and universities—and of course the Services—have always been the homes of descriptive slang, so it is not perhaps surprising that local schoolboys have evolved their own particular language for the school dining-hall. In Hartlepool, for instance, cabbage is unflatteringly described as “seaweed” and tapioca pudding, with schoolboy directness, as “frog-spawn.”

5-: From Trials of a School Cook: 650 Meals a Day, by ‘A. B.’, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Monday 27th June 1955:

“Frog’s spawn and seaweed” . . That is the children’s name for tapioca and greengage jam. It is an affectionate term. Surprisingly enough, they love it, as they do all milk puddings, particularly if we lace them with jam or stewed fruit to add a touch of colour.

6-: From School Dinners, in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford University Press, 1959), by the English folklorists Iona Opie (1923-2017) and Peter Opie (1918-1982):

Tapioca or sago is ‘fishes’ eyes’, ‘frogs’ eyes’, ‘fishes’ eyes in glue’, or, very commonly, ‘frog spawn’.

7-: From New Society (London, England) of Thursday 22nd August 1963:

We are indebted to a schoolboy reader, aged 14½, named Jones 2, for a holiday report on the progress, or lack of it, in school argot. As from time immemorial, it centres about abuse, and abuse centres about, first of all, food. “Trough” in this boy’s school is the current popular term for that inevitable horror, the school dinner: “Hey, Jeff, are you getting first or second trough?” The well-known fly cemetery and frogspawn are still o.k.—descriptions of currant puddings and tapioca, but sausages have become “bags o’ mystery” in this northern grammar school.

8-: From This is life at Benenden 2, by Robin Eastwood, published in the Liverpool Echo and Evening Express (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Wednesday 11th September 1963:

On Friday next week autumn term will begin at Benenden—and among the new girls there will be Princess Anne 3. Here Robin Eastwood describes life at the school. She is aged 20 and went to Benenden on her 13th birthday.
[…]
I hear that since I left, four years ago, the food has improved, but it is probable that Princess Anne will still be able to savour the delights of Ganges mud, dead man’s leg, frogspawn, bones and barley, and the occasional greased rat.
In common parlance these are chocolate pudding, baked jam roll, tapioca, Lancashire hot-pot, and iced buns, the last being a favourite breaktime delicacy.

2 Benenden School is an independent boarding school for girls in Kent, England.
3 Anne Elizabeth Alice Louise (born 1950), the Princess Royal, is the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

9-: The term mashed frogspawn is a jocular appellation for green peas in the following from That’s my boy, by Mary Donat, published in the Evening Post (Reading, Berkshire, England) of Friday 17th July 1970—the following is about the meals that Mary Donat’s son eats at school:

No one doubts that the menus are well-balanced, varied, nutritious, vitamin-filled banquets. No one doubts it—except the kids who have to eat it. Shepherds pie and green peas is commonly known as sloppy slush and mashed frog spawn. Roast beef, roast potatoes and cabbage is lumps of fat, burnt spuds and green fungus. Chinese torture is the name given to rice pudding. The word for school custard is unprintable. Only he knows what brown bombers are. but they are everyone’s favourite fodder.

10-: From the column Val’s View, published in the Leicester Chronicle (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Friday 13th August 1976:

They’ve been surveying children’s school dinners (again) and decided that kids still like much the same as they did 50 years ago. Sticky buns and chocolate sponges are preferred to tapioca and steamed pud.
Well, it isn’t exactly a revelation is it? Why should parents and teachers expect their children to like what they themselves loathed as schoolchildren?
To this day I think of tapioca as ‘frog spawn’ and steamed pudding as ‘stodge’. And I won’t tell you what we called a certain watery beef mince.

11-: From a letter published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 14th May 1979:

FUN GRUB
Mrs. Norah Hillman, Pethertons, Halberton, nr. Leverton, Devon, writes:
As a Cook/Supervisor of school meals, I found the way the children named the various dishes was most hilarious, to say the least—teddy (potato) skins and cocoa for corn flakes and melted chocolate; tombstone and blood, white blancmange and red jam; frog spawn, tapioca; rubber chocolate, butterscotch flan with choc grated on top.

12-: From Crisis on the menu? Why mum may have to fork out even more for those school meals, by Christine Garbutt, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Friday 14th September 1979:

At Sir James Barrie, the school lunch looked most appetising, a far cry from the grisly shepherd’s pie served with soggy cabbage and followed by slithery sago pudding nicknamed “frog’s spawn” which some of us remember.

13-: From the Evening Standard (London, England) of Tuesday 18th March 1980:

Pudding on the agony . . .
Those who have never got over their schooldays hatred of “frogspawn” pudding will be glad to hear that the EEC is cutting imports of tapioca from Thailand.
The bad news is that more of the stuff is on its way from Brazil and Kenya.