Finding your number's up in a story choc-full of surprises

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
It all began when I heard it on the radio. The programme contained a small section on the origins of certain household names and colloquial phrases. It reported that the speciality ice-cream with the chocolate Flake stuck in the top had been called a "99" because the Flake was 99mm long.

How could such synchronicity exist? The school had just received a rather lengthy document "The Homework File" from the Scottish Office. Homework, among many other things, should offer more interesting challenges to the pupil. My Primary 7 class were just about to start measuring using the millimetre. Clearly I should set them the task of finding out why a "99" was actually called a "99".

There was a small hiccup when I first approached the class on this issue as a number were under the strange impression that a "99" was when you scratched the same spot of skin on the back of your hand or forearm with your fingernail 99 times.

Anything less than a "99er", for example, a "56er" or worse, a "27er" and you were immediately proved to a complete wimp.

When I'd dealt with this confusion, all pupils were correctly focused on finding the answer to why the ice-cream cone with the chocolate Flake was called a "99" and I offered five house points to the person who could supply the answer.

When nobody returned the following day with the correct answer I surmised that no parent had been listening to the same radio show as me.

But the pupils tackled the problem with a certain amount of gusto. The ice-cream van salesman seemed an obvious choice but all he could offer was "how should I know? I only sell them". The local Italian ice-cream shop could offer little more enlightenment.

A number of pupils looked at the exercise in a more creative light attempting to produce reasons why the "99" evolved.

Had it been invented in 1899? Did you get 99 Flakes in a box? Could you only get 99 Flakes from 1lb of chocolate? Did the Flake have 99 strands of chocolate? Was it invented at an address which had 99 in it such as 99 ice-cream Makers Street? Did it originally cost 99p or 99d for one or a number of them?

Alas despite their deft thinking, none of these suggestions was correct.

Apparently working on the premise that the answer was to be found historically, a number of grandparents became involved in the hunt for the elusive answer. I received a rather pointed letter from one who told me that the Americans had invented the "99" and they thought it a perfect ice-cream but as nothing was completely perfect (that is, 100 per cent) they called it a "99". The letter finished with the words: "This is worth at least 30 house points." Fat chance I thought.

Meanwhile grandparents appeared to be casting their nets wider for an answer. A well-known Italian ice-cream maker in a town 50 miles away was telephoned but knew nothing, nor could Walls, the ice-cream manufacturer, come up with the goods.

Finally the family friend of one child contacted the Cadbury's World display in Birmingham. They said they would ring back and did with some story about an Italian king - they would send more information in the post.

I remained sceptical, holding on to the simplicity of the 99mm length.

The following day at lunch time I was handed the evidence from an excited and expectant pupil who had just received the post. It was a photocopy of the Bourneville Works magazine circa July l966. Who could argue with this in-house organ of the chocolate maker?

Apparently in the past, the Italian king had 99 elite bodyguards and so the figure had become associated with excellence in general and been given to this ice-cream which had originated in the north of England in the late 1920s. I read the passage with some disbelief.

Yet perhaps this was the reason why the Flakes were 99mm. I awarded the six house points to the Italian monarch's bodyguard idea and even gave out some more house points to someone who by sheer coincidence suggested that the Flakes may be 99mm in length.

Meanwhile I had a nagging worry about the actual length of these Flakes. I bought a packet to check. I laid one along the ruler. It measured 74mm. I checked another in case I'd chosen an atypical Flake - it too was 74mm. Penny caramels seem to have become smaller, bars of toffee shorter but could "99ers" now be no more than "74ers". If they ever had been 99mm then this was a cutback in its most literal form.

The moral of the story is don't believe everything you hear on the radio and even if you do, check it out before you give it out for homework. Otherwise, as they say in America, things could just become a little "flakey".

Ally Budge. Ally Budge is a primary teacher from Caithness in the Highland region

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