We are one more week closer to Halloween, and pumpkins are ubiquitous. I feel duty-bound (they used to say: “It is my bounden duty”) to attack the pumpkin market from my professional point of view and ask: “how did the pumpkin get its name?” The well-known facts can be found in any reliable dictionary, for example, in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, whose entry I’ll reproduce and amplify below.
In Greek, síkuos pépōn designated (perhaps still designates?) a kind of melon not eaten till quite ripe (the síkuos being eaten unripe). The word pépōn “large melon” was an adjective but used as a noun. (This process, known as substantivization, or nominalization, is easy to illustrate in English. Take the adjective blind. The first step toward becoming a noun can be seen in the plural: the blind. The definite article suggests the presence of a noun. English can go even farther: compare the reds, in which the plural ending is the same as in roads, reeds, and raids. But we cannot say the blinds for the blind, as we can do with the whites, the blacks (for instance, in chess) and the reds, without running into the noun a blind, a seventeenth-century coinage meaning “a screen”). From Greek the word traveled to Latin and became pepo, genitive peponis “watermelon; pumpkin” (note the ambiguity!). The more common Latin word for “pumpkin” was cucurbita, whose descendants are known as Kürbis in German and as gourd in English (the latter via French). The difference between the pumpkin and the gourd can be passed by in this story, though I may mention the fact that pumpkin is defined as “a kind of gourd” and gourd as “fruit of cucurbitaceous (!) plant.”
Kukurbita, with its kukur-, is a funny word, like murmur and Latin purpur “purple” and carcer “prison (compare English incarcerate). Whatever the original impulse behind such words, with reduplication (ku-kur, mur-mur, car-cer, and even cucurri, the perfect of Latin curro– “to run”) they sound like emotional formations (compare she is very, very clever; my new job is so-so). The form of a full-grown pumpkin evokes the idea of amusing plumpness. The Russian for “pumpkin” is tykva, and it makes one think of tykat’ “to push with a finger,” though the association has nothing to do with the word’s etymology.
Anyway, pepo/peponis made its predictable way from Latin to French and became pompon (om stands for a nasalized vowel), as a vegetable name now obsolete. Today, the French for “pumpkin” is citrouille, from the color of a citrus fruit (lemon, orange, and so forth). Pompon produced English pumpkin, rhyming with bumpkin, both with a Dutch diminutive suffix. Pump– is not the ancient root of pumpkin. Yet this root is amazingly appropriate: it resembles plump (that is, round) and pomp (a pompous person puffs up with self-importance). In the new environment, pumpkin found several close allies, pump and pomp among them.
The Greek ancestor of pomp meant “solemn procession” (Latin had pompa). Solemnity presupposes pomposity, just as the shape of the pumpkin evokes the idea of pompous rotundity. Another expressive name? It would be dangerous to explain the origin of so many words by applying the same yardstick to all of them. Etymological dictionaries explain in detail how some such words came about and how they traveled from land to land or say nothing about them (obscure are, for example, Latin cucurbita “pumpkin” and English pump “a kind of shoe”). Pump “the device for raising water” fared a bit better, but in its checkered history, the unexpected form plump(e) turns up, and Modern English plump in all its senses makes one think of sound imitation.
My modest aim is to show that pumpkin has a form in perfect harmony with what we expect such an object to look like. My second point is slightly different. We have seen that pumpkin got its m relatively late. Its new root, with m in the middle, produced a host of spurious relatives, among which the vegetable name found even more security than in its original environment. Two words deserving our attention are pamper and pimp. On pimp I wrote two posts very long ago (6 January and 13 January 2007) and invite our readers to consult them. Here I’ll only summarize those essays. (Once again, I was saddened to read the comments added years later. Please, if you find an old story to be of some interest, add your comment to the latest post. Otherwise, I’ll never see your remarks.)
Many words have the root pimp ~ pamp ~ pump (the variation is a trivial case of ablaut). Those with i in the root tend to designate small objects (for instance, pimple), while those with u and a are usually tied to big sizes and “inflation.” Such is English pamper, originally, “to overfeed,” as opposed to obsolete English pimper “coddle.” German pampig means “arrogant.”
The best-known English word having the root p-mp with i in the middle is pimp. It does not mean only “procurer of prostitutes.” Nor was it coined with this sense. In dialects, pimp means “a bundle of firewood,” sometimes defined as “faggot” (incidentally, this astounding line in a dictionary—pimp “faggot”—sent me on a wild goose chase for the etymology of both words; full entries can be found in my An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction). Pimp also means “helper in mines; servant in logging camps,” the reference being to a person’s inferior status or diminutive stature. German Pimpf means “an inexperienced boy,” that is, someone who was unable to produce a big Pumpf “fart” (hence also Pumpernickel bread; fortunately, the origin of the name is rarely understood by those who consume the product).
Before the Nazi era, Pimpf was a street word in Austria. Under Hitler, Pfimpfe were boys between ten and fourteen, members of an organization leading to Hitlerjugend (an analog of “young pioneers” in communist regimes). Today, even Wikipedia has an entry on Pfimpfe, but in the past, no English etymologist knew the word, and in Germany, hardly any linguist heard the English word pimp. Therefore, no one compared them. German researchers guessed the origin of Pimpf without any trouble, even though the word surfaced in books late (they did not need the English cognate), while their English-speaking colleagues were puzzled by pimp and failed to offer an etymology.
Here then is the conclusion. Small things and small people are “pimps.” Growth in stature requires another grade of ablaut: the thing and the creature becomes a “pump” or a “pamp.” The progression i-a in English is well known: compare tic-tac-toe, tricktrack, pitter-patter, and dozens of others. A pimple is a tiny thing, unlike pomp and a pump. A pumpkin can of course be small, but ideally it is big and round. It appears that the pumpkin has a name it deserves, whether it graces our doors at Halloween or becomes part of a pumpkin pie.
Feature image by Karalina S via Unsplash