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I've looked up the usual places for meanings of nonpareil and have found unequalled and also its usage to mean small confectionary. However, I see it used on almonds, others have reported it being used on capers, and I'm guessing there's more to the gloss when it comes to nonpareil and food items.

Anyone know what it means—for instance—when on a package of almonds?

I would like to know the etymological differences between its "unequaled" meaning which seems to apply to confectionary and its meaning on other foodstuffs. Are all the usages just chefs trying to brag, so to speak, or is there more nuance as to how these variety names and/or size classifications (or other varieties of its usage) came about? I do think it's an interesting question about words and their etymologies and how one word developed its variegated meanings is of interest (in general) to English language aficionados.

  • For almonds, it looks like it's just a variety name. If you want to learn the details of how this variety differs from other almond varieties, that might be more of a question for a cooking expert :) For capers, it seems to be a size classification. – sumelic Aug 21 '16 at 21:13
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it seems to be about the meaning of specialized food terminology; a good explanation would be mainly based on knowledge about food and cooking, not on knowledge about "English language and usage". – sumelic Aug 21 '16 at 21:16
  • Please let me know if I've misunderstood your question; if you want to know how the word "nonpareil" came to be applied to these foods with this meaning, I think that would be on-topic (as an etymology question). However, asking about what it means is, as I said, more of a question about food than a question about word usage. – sumelic Aug 21 '16 at 21:18
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    @sumelic I've seen countless questions on EL&U where the answer could only be provided by an expert in medicine, computer science, psychology, advanced mathematics, car mechanics etc. etc. The OP also says "for instance", so the question regarding nonpareil is not strictly limited to almonds. – Mari-Lou A Aug 22 '16 at 11:21
  • In the general context of ingredients, as well as referring to the tiny coloured sugar balls (known in the UK as 'hundreds and thousands'), "nonpareil" can also be used as an adjective for any ingredient, as a boast that it's "of the highest quality". This usage would translate to "unparalleled" or "without equal". – Max Williams Aug 22 '16 at 11:34
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Nonpareil is the name of a variety of almond, the most common variety grown in California (which produces most of the world's almonds), but one of many. It is simply a name, one which reflects no more on the almond than the variety or cultivar names do for any other plant or product— Cripps Pink ("Pink Lady") apples are not really pink, and Red Delicious apples are not really delicious.

The Almond Board of California provides this table of popular varieties:

Major California almond varieties include the Nonpareil, Carmel, Butte, Padre, Mission, and others

An account of its origin is given in the history California Illustrated No. I: The Vacaville Early Fruit District of California (1888), by Edward J. Wickson. Farmer A.T. Hatch first planted Languedoc almonds, the most common variety at the time, on his property in the Suisun Valley of California in 1872, and after many years of breeding, selected four for propagation. He is quoted directly:

The new varieties, that are worthy of all praise, are the “I X L,” “Ne Plus Ultra,” “Nonpareil” and “El Supremo.”

In other words, Hatch seems to have simply chosen four boastful names which would suggest productivity and size. It does not seem to have any relation to nonpareil capers, nonpareil dessert sprinkles, nonpareil print, or any other usage.

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