Q&A: The origin of “Tim Tams”

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking the biscuit…

Q: Brrr, the weather got colder this week.

A: In some places, yep.

Q: I’m happy as long as I’m cosy inside with a cuppa, good book and this full packet of Tim Tams – not foreshadowing whatsoever.

A: Whoa, careful about the product placement – couldn’t you just say “mmmm, I have this packet of generic chocolate coated biscuits”.

Q: Not really, because today I’d like to know where the name “Tim Tam” comes from.

A: Ah, fair enough. Well, Australia’s most famous biscuit was in fact invented by Timothy Tam, a baker from Warrnambool in Victoria.  

Q: Wow, really?

A: No! We made all that up.

Q: Even the part about Warrnambool?

A: Especially that part. We thought it helped to garnish the deception perfectly.

Q: Ugh, fine then. So, why ARE they called Tim Tams?

A: Well, it’s apt that we mentioned deception, because the name actually derived from “flimflam” – an old term for deception designed to swindle money from someone. It became “Tim Tam” when people kept stealing Timothy Tam’s chocolate cookies from his bakery in Warrnambool…

Q: Ugh. So let me guess… another made up explanation?

A: Certainly was.

Q: Can you PLEASE explain the real origin of “Tim Tams”?

A: Okay, the real one?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, it starts with a Scottish immigrant called William Arnott, who opened a bakery in Morpeth NSW in the mid 1800s.

Q: Pfffft “Morpeth” yeah right…

A: Actually, no, this time it’s true.

Q: Oh, sorry. Do carry on.

A: Eventually the bakery moved down the road to Newcastle in NSW and kicked off the longstanding “Arnott’s” brand we still have today.

Q: That’s nice. But what about our chocolate friends?

A: They sound like some yummy chums.

Q: I mean Tim Tams!

A: Oh yes, sorry. So, 1958 was a very important year for Tim Tams. That was the year that one of Arnott's food directors took a trip to Britain to get inspiration for new biscuits. While there, he encountered the “Penguin” biscuit and thought it could be improved. And so the Tim Tam was launched in 1964.

Q: You’re missing one important part of the story!

A: Ah yes, sorry. That food director’s name was Ian Norris.

Q: Not that! About the biscuit itself.

A: Oh, of course – a common question. But no, the British “Penguin” biscuit did NOT contain actual penguins.

Q: No! You still haven’t mentioned HOW the Tim Tam got its name!

A: Oh that’s right, it was your original question wasn’t it?

Q: YESSSS!

A: Well remember how we said that 1958 was an important year for Tim Tams?

Q: I remember.

A: Well, it wasn’t just the year that Mr Norris discovered Penguins. It was also the year that Mr Ross Arnott went to the races.

Q: This is getting silly.

A: Stay with us on this one. Because it wasn’t just any horse race. It was the prestigious 1958 Kentucky Derby. And guess which horse won?

Q: At this point, I’m going to go with “Warrnambool”.

A: What? No! The winning horse’s name was “Tim Tam”.

Q: Uh huh. Sure it was.

A: This time we’re serious! And so, when Mr Norris spoke of his plan to make a better version of the Penguin, Mr Arnott had just the name for it – the Tim Tam.

Q: Wow, so Australia’s favourite biscuit is actually named after an American racehorse. 

A: That’s right. Just like our favourite dessert is named after a Russian ballerina. We’re big on outsourcing.

Q: What about the “Tim Tam slam” – biting off opposite corners and sucking hot liquid through the biscuit like a straw so that the insides melt? When did THAT originate?

A: Would you believe it was something they used to do with racehorses too?

Q: I would not believe that.

A: Fair enough. It was worth a try. No one’s quite sure when the practice or the term originated. In fact, for a long time, Arnott’s preferred “Tim Tam Suck” to Slam.

Q: Um, no.

A: It’s also reportedly been called the Tim Tam Shotgun, Bomb, Explosion and even Bong. But Slam is the most popular. The name has been a thing for at least 20 years, and the practice probably dates all the way back to 1964.

Q: Well, thanks for finally sharing the truth about Tim Tams. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to— wait, who ate them all? Curse you, foreshadowing!

 

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