The Grammarphobia Blog

The flatulent society

Q: What is the origin of the word “pumpernickel”? My local newspaper guy and I (both former Iowans living in New York) disagree on the origin of the noun describing a coarse dark bread.

A: “Pumpernickel,” the name of the dark, slightly sweet bread, has humble origins, to say the least, in the Westphalia region of Germany.

The word is German and was first used for the bread in the 17th century. But it had an earlier meaning, roughly equivalent to a rascal or lout, in the 16th century.

To get a better sense of its early literal meaning, you have to take the word apart: in German, pumper means “fart” and Nickel is a pet-form of the name Nikolaus. The nickname has been used in German to mean “goblin,” “devil,” or “rascal,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the earliest meaning of the word “pumpernickel” is “not entirely certain,” but the etymology indicates that “it is clearly depreciative.”

“As applied to bread it was apparently also originally depreciative and was perhaps originally applied to Westphalian bread by outsiders,” the OED adds. “This type of bread was probably so called either on account of its being difficult to digest and causing flatulence or in a more general allusion to its hardness and poor quality.”

You didn’t say what your disagreement with the newspaper guy was about, but I think I can guess: a popular folk etymology that “pumpernickel” is from a French phrase, usually bon pour Nicol, or “good for Nicol.”

The “Nicol” here is a horse, sometimes even Napoleon’s horse. This false etymology has been around almost as long as the original; in fact, it was recorded before Napoleon’s time.

By the way, there are two kinds of pumpernickel: German-style, which uses a chemical reaction to darken the bread, and American-style, which uses molasses or some other darkening agent.

I’ve never tried German pumpernickel, but I’ve heard that the American version is easier to digest – and less gassy. Enjoy!

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