On Halloween, there’s no disputing that the king-size candy bar is the crown jewel of trick-or-treating loot. But those extra ounces of chocolatey goodness don’t just measure our taste in sweets: The history of the adjective king-size also reveals America’s changing appetites and attitudes.
The original king-size labeled a different vice: cigarettes. In 1939, the American Tobacco Company repackaged Pall Malls as a longer cigarette it called “king-size,” now a standard length of 85mm. (While king-size prevails, variants include king-sized, kingsize, and king size.) One folk etymology claims the king-size name comes from England’s King George VI, who apparently preferred the new cigarette’s length. This theory, however, overlooks that king denoted “larger than normal,” hence “superior,” long before the cigarette ever stretched out.
The earliest record the Oxford English Dictionary cites for king-size comes in 1825 from John Constable, an English painter. Constable described portraits of France’s Charles X by fellow artist Thomas Lawrence as “king size,” in contrast to his “head size” ones of the Dolphin and Duchess of Berry. The former, portraying the full figure of the ruler, were larger than the latter, which focused on their subjects only from the head on up.
Constable wasn’t original in affixing -size in reference to art, though: By the 1810s, life-size was already being used as a term for artwork that depicted its subjects true to their size in, well, real life. But nor was the art scene unique in its use of –size in compound nouns. The English language has been employing -size in compounds since the 1500 and 1600s: In Troilus & Cressida, Shakespeare called cowards “great-sized,” for example. And it was Lane Bryant, many years later, that ushered –size into the sartorial scene when it premiered fashions for so-called shorter, fuller women in the 1920s. The store called the apparel plus-size.
While Pall Mall’s king-size was a novel application, it was a different cigarette that aggressively marketed the royal descriptor. In the early 1940s, Regent Cigarettes sold its “king size” smokes as the only choice for the modern man. An advertisement in a 1942 edition of Life featured a daughter size-shaming her father: “DAD! A modern man like you smoking a “shortie”…shame! Get Regent, the King Size cigarette that’s 20% longer, gives you more for your money.” King-size riffs on Regent’s royal name, but the tobacco seller was no doubt creating a complex set of associations between king and worth, progress, power, and supremacy. Regent’s bravado suited a time when America was asserting itself after the attack on Pearl Harbor and its economic engine was heating up after the Great Depression.
King-size was a particular favorite of corporate creatives in the 1950s. Coke introduced the (now standard-size) 12-oz. “king size” bottle in 1955. In 1956, Dodge debuted the Coronet. “Now Dodge invades the low price field with the only full-size, full-styled, full-fashioned KING-SIZE CAR ever offered at so low cost,” the company boasted. As freezers went king-size, so did frozen food packages. Hamburgers were going king-size and needed to be gobbled up on king-size, even king jumbo size, TV tray tables. As Popular Mechanics rightly observed in 1954, “Even Beds Go King-Size.” The 1950s also generated king-size’s first offshoot: queen-size, first used as a style of yes, cigarette; the mattress dimensions came by the 1970s, at least according to the OED.
When, exactly, king-size was slapped on the first candy bar wrapper is hard to tell. Hershey released the Big Block in 1980; soon after, Big Candy was packaging chocolates with “Larger Size.” Come the 1990s, king-size was the well-established term for these bigger candy bars, so much so they were widely referenced in the broader culture: Hip-hop artist Rappin’ 4-Tay was describing his, er, chocolate bar as king-size at the same time middle-school math workbooks were sweetening word problems with calculations involving king-size candies.
The 1990s also popularized that other great king-size scion: McDonald’s supersize, which referred to extra-large orders of fries and sodas. The fast-food giant discontinued the option, though, in 2004, citing low sales and a need to simplify its menu. In 2013, Mars, citing health concerns, killed off its king-size candies in its US market, with its flagship Snickers the first to go. And by 2009, the Oxford English Dictionary records that dread regicide of trick-or-treaters, fun-size candy—and M&M’s sharing-size chocolates have since joined the party.
Fun-size, perhaps not unlike king-size, sounds like a gimmick of modern marketing, but it, too, reaches back in American history. It’s first used of the “fun-size, special-size” 1960 Buick Special, a “new-size car with the room, ride, and go of full-size cars.”
The smaller, Buick Special may have anticipated the downsizing of the following decade. This downsizing, though, wasn’t the euphemism for “layoffs” that it means today: It originally referred to smaller, more economical cars that were being manufactured in the 1970s (compared to the likes of those big, king-sized Dodges we saw before). But even this downsize has gone down, so to speak, with king-size. In business jargon, rightsize supplanted downsize to soften the negative connotations of down.
With all these expansions and contractions of –size in American English over the past century, a king-size Snickers sounds pretty tasty at this point.
Note: I originally drafted this article for Slate’s Lexicon Valley last year, but it never ran. Thanks to Katy Waldman for the edits.