Few words in English are more difficult to pin down with precision than sundae—that concoction of ice cream, chocolate (or some other) syrup, and maybe a few chopped nuts, topped with whipped cream and a cherry. Why is it called a sundae?
H. L. Mencken in The American Language speculates without much conviction that the word originated in a sudden craze to enforce Blue Laws in some unknown southern state, making it illegal to sell an ice-cream soda on the Christian Sabbath. To get around this law, some enterprising druggist offered ice cream and syrup without the offensive soda, calling it an “Ice Cream Sunday.” Presumably some people objected to the Sabbath day being included in the confection’s name, so he changed the spelling to sundae.
The Oxford English Dictionary’ s first citation of the word is in 1904. In one newspaper it’s spelled sundi, but the word appeared as sundae in The Minneapolis Times in the same year.
According to Wikipedia, many U. S. cities claim to be the first to serve a sundae, maybe as early as 1881. They include Ithaca, New York; Two Rivers Wisconsin; and both Evanston and Plainfield, Illinois. All the claimants agree about the general reason for its invention—to evade laws against ice cream sodas. Apparently soda water is the beverage of the Devil.
The beverage of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou varies, depending on the circumstances, but when he has too much of it, as he often does, he is moved to spew out incomprehensible drivel like the following:
I ate a Sundae on a Monday,
And played a stirring March in May.
I dined on Turkey in Burundi,
And I was made a Knight one Day.
Sinking Slowly in the Quicksand
On the Square I saw a Ring.
Names will never hurt, but sticks and
Stones might cause a Fall in Spring.