In French, the word "nonpareil" means "without equal," so the term was meant to describe a candy that was better than the rest. Nonpareils were once only found in a white variety but colorful nonpareils soon followed.
Nonpareils were used as wedding cake decorations back in the 18th century and soon became popular in America and throughout Europe. At that time, specific colors were recommended by cookbook authors and chefs. For example, pink nonpareils were called for on a pound cake and red and green nonpareils were to be used on a Queen cake.
Today in America, nonpareils are sometimes known as "sprinkles."