Honey apples and quince cheese

Some of the apple jam and jelly I made last year

A recent discussion with a friend got me wondering about the differences between jam, jelly, conserve and marmalade and the origins of these words. I discovered that in some varieties of English and in other languages some or all of these words can be used interchangeably, for example in American English jelly can refer to both jam and jelly, and in Australian and South African English jam is used to refer to both jam and jelly, while these words refer to different things in the English of the UK, Canada and India.

Outside North America the jelly is also the name of a gelatin dessert known as jello or Jell-O in the USA and Canada.


Marmalade /ˈmɑːməleɪd/: a preserve made from citrus fruit, especially bitter ‘Seville’ oranges, and also from grapefruit, lemons and limes. Often contains shredded or chopped peel from the fruit.

Etymology: first appeared in English in 1480 and comes from the Portuguese marmelada (a preserve made from quinces – quince jam/cheese), from marmelo (quince), from the Latin melimelum, (honey apple), from the Greek μελίμηλον (melímēlon – a kind of apple grafted on a quince), from μέλι (meli -honey) and μήλον (mēlon – apple).

The practice of cooking fruit with honey or sugar to preserve it apparently dates back to the Greeks, who discovered that quinces cooked slowly with honey would set when cooled. This discovery was taken up by the Romans, who used this method to make preserves of such fruit as quinces, lemons, apples, plums and pears.

Jam /dʒam/ – a sweet spread or conserve made from fruit and sugar boiled to a thick consistency. Usually the fruit is peeled and stones, pips, etc are removed before it is cooked.

Etymology: uncertain, perhaps related to jam (to press tightly) and of imitative origin.

Jelly /ˈdʒɛli/ – a clear fruit spread made from sweetened fruit (or vegetable) juice. With jellies the fruit is chopped up but there is no need to peel or core it as the pulp resulting from cooking the fruit with water is filtered through a cloth such as muslin. The juice is then mixed with sugar and cooked until it sets.

Etymology: from Old French gelee (frost, jelly), from Latin gelata (frozen), from gelare (freeze), from gelu (frost). Related to the Italian word gelato (icecream).

Conserve /kənˈsəːv/ a preparation made by preserving fruit with sugar; jam or marmalade. Also known as whole fruit jam. The fruit is often spread with sugar and left to steep for a few hours before it is cooked, and the cooking is shorter than with jam as the aim is that the fruit absorbs the sugar but doesn’t break up.

Etymology: from Old French conserve, from Latin conservare (to preserve), from con- (together) and servare (to keep).

In other languages fruit preserves have various names

– in French confiture can be used for jam, jelly and marmalade, which is also referred to as confiture d’oranages or marmelade d’oranges. marmelade is defined as ‘stewed fruit, compote’ in my French dictionary. Jelly/jello, the gelatin dessert, is known as gelée.

– in German Marmelade is jam, jelly and marmalade; Orangenmarmelade is also used for marmalade, and Konfitüre for jam. Jelly/jello is known as Wackelpeter or Wackelpudding.

– in Czech marmeláda is used for jam, jelly and marmalade, though džem (jam) and želé (jelly) also exist.

Sources: www.oxforddictionaries.com, wikipedia.org, www.etymonline.com, langtolang.com http://www.slovnik.cz/

17 thoughts on “Honey apples and quince cheese

  1. Hungarian words are:
    – marmelád: nearly extinct, people recognize it but don’t use;
    – dzsem: rarely used; official orthography is dzsem but the English way jam appears sometimes;
    – lekvár: from Slovakian lekvár, meaning jam, colloquial;
    – íz (= taste), gyümölcsíz (= fruit taste): Hungarian made-up words for jam, in official language;
    – befőtt (= in-cooked): canned fruit, preserve, when the fruit is kept in whole or slices and preserved in a liquid; lots of housewives make it and store in glass cans;
    – konzerv: canned food, fruit or anything, in metal cans, only factory made.

    A common joke is about the policeman who arrests a truck driver and his principal asks why.
    – Well, sir, I’ve asked him what is he carrying. He said it’s dzsem. I’ve looked at the travelling warrant at it reads JAM. I’ve opened the cargo bay and it was full with lekvár!

  2. Polish usage (ime)

    dżem = all purpose word for jam, marmelade

    marmolada = closer to jelly (but real jelly doesn’t exist in Poland)

    konfitura = with whole fruits and fried, not boiled in large shallow pans

    powidła = plums fried without any extra sugar, the texture is thicker than apple sauce but not as thick as jam (note that powidła is grammatically plural)

  3. What you’re calling a “conserve” appears to be what the US calls a “preserve”.

    There’s one instance of gelatin being called “jelly” in the US that I can think of– the gelatin used in a hectograph (a duplicating machine which used gelatin to transfer ink to paper) is always “hectograph jelly” in contemporary references that I’ve seen.

  4. jam – jam
    jelly – jeli (pl. jelïau) or sieli
    marmalade – marmalêd (pl. marmaledau)
    Welsh doesn’t official have the letter J in its alphabet but it is retained in English loan words.
    My etymology dictionary connects ‘jam’ with ‘cham(m)’ and ‘champ’ – to chew noisily; press down firmly. Suggesting a link with the Swedish dialectal ‘kämsa’ (to chew with difficulty) and Icelandic ‘kiaptr’ (jaw).

  5. Now that we have this sorted out, how about a look at the international confusion over what constitutes a cookie, cake, or biscuit? 🙂

  6. In UK tax law system VAT (Value Added Tax) there is distinction between cakes and biscuits due to tax payable on (chocolated coated) biscuits but not on chocolated coated cakes hence the debatable ‘Jaffa Cakes’ argument cake or biscuit? ‘Cookie’ is really just a kinda biscuit brand name or marketing ploy – we understand that’s what Americans call what we (Brits) think of as biscuits. But I wouldn’t say the the pair are interchangable. You’d never call, say, a Rich Tea biscuit a cookie.

  7. Hmm… I’m pretty sure jam and jelly aren’t interchangeable in American English. For lack of a better explanation, jam to us is the chunky, goobery stuff with seeds, whereas jelly is the clear stuff that spreads better.

    Both are tasty, IMHO 🙂

  8. Mmmmm, mostly correct but I disagree with your statement that in American English jelly can mean jam OR jelly, some Americans may make this mistake out of ignorance, but it is a mistake, and one that most people (especially foodies) are anal retentive about correcting in that jelly means ONLY jelly and does not include jam and jam means ONLY jam and does not include jelly. I would never refer to a strawberry jam as “jelly”, though some people would out of ignorance (sort of like calling a pickup truck a “car” even though it’s not, it’s a pickup truck, if you were looking for a catch-all phrase then “vehicle” or “automobile” would’ve been a better choice). And Jell-O is just Jell-O.


  9. You always hear ‘peanut butter and jelly sandwiches’ though – which is why the prospect of ‘jelly’ being the filling of sandwiches sounds so strange to Brit ears?

  10. “Hmm… I’m pretty sure jam and jelly aren’t interchangeable in American English”

    Not completely interchangeable but in my usage they tend to overlap and I usually use ‘jelly’ as a cover term. Jam has connotations of being lumpier and …. homier.

  11. Thanks for that link! It was all academic to me until I went to Japan in 2007, and discovered that Japanese had borrowed some handy English words for baked desserts, but with the British meanings. Thus a box of keeki turned out to be what I would describe as spongy cookies, and what I call “cake” was universally gatou.

    (Although maybe the latter was borrowed directly from French; any modifiers tended to be in French too. E.g., at a buffet where I first encountered some, the label was a transliteration of gateau fraise.)

  12. In the US there’s a bit of a continuum between jelly, jam, and preserves. Jelly is the most jiggly, and preserves are the most obviously fruity. Also children tend to prefer jelly, whereas jam and preserves are more adult. That said, nobody probably thinks too hard about the distinction.

  13. In Denmark, “marmalade” can be made with any fruit (or vegetable), but must contain at least 35% fruit puree or pulp. “Syltetøj” is marmalade of a thinner consistency, the result of using fruit with less natural pectin. Preserves made with juice only is called “gelé” and can not legally be sold as marmalade.

  14. ‘Quince cheese’ sounds rather unappetising, not the product itself but the combination of the two words? I think I’ve always known it as ‘quince paste’ rather than cheese which reminds me more of ‘head/pork cheese’ ie. brawn and ‘quince paste’ looks like a version of Turkish Delight (lokum).
    I wonder if Edward Lear’s ‘Owl and Pussycat’ actually ate slices of ‘quince cheese’ with a runcible spoon rather than just the fruit as the poem states?

  15. “nobody probably thinks too hard about the distinction”

    … which fact makes me proud to be an American.

  16. Where I live (western half of the USA) “jam” and “jelly” are used interchangeably by a lot of people, although I make a distinction between the two.

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