Because who doesn’t like sprinkles?
Perhaps obviously, the term sprinkles developed from the verb to sprinkle, which means “to scatter in drops; to let fall in small particles here and there”. It makes perfect sense that small particles of sugar strewn here and there atop a cupcake or cookie would come to be known by the action used to scatter them. The first time sprinkles appears in print to mean “tiny confections” is in a 1921 issue of Western Confectioner magazine, which hails the invention of a “new product being put on the market … in the form of ‘Chocolate Sprinkles’. They are made of chocolate and are used to decorate chocolates by sprinkling on chocolates after dipping; to decorate bon bons, cakes, pastry; also for sprinkling on chocolate sundaes at the fountain”.
Though the American term sprinkles was new in the 1920s, the idea behind it (adding decorative sugar to desserts) had been around for a while. There were French nonpareils (a topping “without equal”). As early as 1697, we see quote from the Countess D’Aunoy that speaks of, “certain little Comfits, which in France we call Non-pareil”.
There are Dutch hagelslag, which are chocolate “hail” invented in 1936 by Gerard de Vries, as well as sugar strands and hundreds and thousands, which are multi-colored British versions.
We also have ants or jimmies, which are the American terms for chocolate hail (the latter most popular in the northeast).
Other terms for these sweet daintrels reflect the various shapes and colors of ‘sprinkle’ that are now produced: confetti (from the Italian plural of confetto “sweetmeat” or “sugarplum”; these were the original treats tossed during carnival in Italy, later morphing into tiny paper or plastic discs), pearls, sequins, as well as a myriad of holiday-themed shapes.
It just goes to show that even the tiniest things can illustrate a little language variation. Sweetly.