The word éclair means literally “lightning” in French. How and why this particular word came to denote an elongated single-serving pastry filled with custard nobody knows — and I mean nobody. Browsing through the typical food history reference, you get the impression they’re all eager for you to just move on to the next entry.
Éclair, n: a word from the French that means lightning bolt. Now then, want a really interesting topic? Edamame. Boy could I ever tell you some stories…
One of the least satisfying explanations of where the éclair gets its name can be found in An A-Z of Food and Drink which claims the term “lightning bolt” was inspired by the reflection of light off the éclair’s shiny chocolate coat. Seems the editor of that book, one Mr. John Ayto, just wanted to go home early that day.
Actually, while it is by no means a food reference guide, the best explanation of the “lightning bolt” name that I know comes from the Chambers Dictionary. Obscure to most of us but a virtual bible for practitioners of the crossword puzzle and Scrabble arts, it’s known for including the odd bit of trivia and/or tongue-in-cheek definition within its pages. It calls an éclair a “cake” that is “long in shape but short in duration”. Works for me.