One of the consequences of Brexit is that Nestlé announced that it would move production of the popular chocolate bar Blue Riband to Poland. People understandably reacted with anger and disappointment, but one of the most common responses to the news was:
Blue Riband? What? I always assumed it was Ribbon. Has it always been spelled like that?
Yes, it has, but you’d be forgiven for assuming the word was ribbon. After all, what’s a riband anyway?
Well, a riband is just a ribbon. It’s an archaic term, more closely related to the Old French riban which riband/ribbon come from. We spell it ribbon, normally, because that fits some of the general patterns of English spelling and pronunciation (you’d assume riband was pronounced like rye-band, wouldn’t you?)
Riband lingered on in English though thanks partly to the rivalry between shipping companies in the early 20th century. The Blue Riband was an unofficial award given to the ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in the fastest time. This wasn’t the first blue riband though.
In the 16th century, an order of French knights known as l’Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint Esprit (Order of the Holy Spirit) used to hang their signature cross from a blue ribbon. Except because they spoke French, they naturally used the French term at the time for a blue ribbon: cordon bleu.
In the late 19th century, the term was adopted by the the French culinary magazine La Cuisinière Cordon Bleu, and is retained by the international school of hospitality education that developed from it.
Still though, why don’t we just say blue ribbon? I’m guessing it’s because riband would have still been in use in English at the time of l’Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint Esprit, and shipping magnates wanted to give their award a sense of history and grandeur by using an old spelling.
But not everyone spells it the old-fashioned way of course. Blue ribbon tends to be quite common in American English, not surprising, as it tends to be the more logical dialect in terms of spelling. Take Pabst Blue Ribbon, the popular American beer, for example.
Actually, brewers seem to be fond of blue ribbons. The most famous lager of the Italian brewing company Peroni is Nastro Azzurro, which means, yes, Blue Riband. And specifically Riband in this case, because it was named in honour of the Italian ocean liner SS Rex, which won the Blue Riband in 1933.
Brexit, beer, and biscuits: all brought together under the sign of the Blue Riband. I’m sure l’Ordre des Chevaliers du Saint Esprit would be proud!