Q: For some reason I hate the world “pudding”—it’s like nails on a blackboard to me. Aside from that, why do we have “-ing” words that aren’t participles or gerunds?
A: Your instincts are right. There is something repulsive about “pudding”—about its etymology, anyway. As they say about sausage, you might not want to know how it was made. More about that later.
As you’ve noticed, not every “-ing” suffix is part of a participle or gerund, like “being” or “going.” The suffix “-ing” is also used in English to form nouns, as is the related suffix “-ling.”
The nouns formed with “-ing” and “-ling” are of two kinds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Some originated as diminutives, while others had “the sense of ‘one belonging to’ or ‘of the kind of,’ hence ‘one possessed of the quality of.’ ”
The diminutive nouns, mostly of the “-ling” variety, often refer to very young animals, as in “kidling,” “duckling,” “gosling,” and “codling” (a small cod). But they can also be contemptuous, as in “godling,” “lordling,” and “princeling.”
The words with the other sense—belonging to or concerned with or having the quality of the root word—include extremely old nouns like “king” (cyning in Old English, from cyn, for “kin”).
This group of nouns also includes “nursling” (literally, one being nursed); “stripling” (someone thin as a strip); “hireling” (one who works for hire); “sibling” (originally a kinsman, from Old English sib, for “related”); “nestling” (one still in the nest); “suckling” (one being suckled); “underling” (a subordinate); and “earthling” (originally, a plowman or cultivator of the soil).
Also, “gelding” (derived from Old Norse geld, meaning barren or impotent); the fish names “whiting” (from “white”) and “herring” (possibly from har, for “gray,” or Old High German heri, for “multitude”); and the former English coins “farthing” (feorþing in Old English, from féorð, for “fourth”) and “shilling” (perhaps from ancient Germanic roots meaning to ring or to divide).
Finally, this category includes “darling” (one who is dear, derived from Old English déor, for “dear”); the archaic endearment “sweeting” (one who is sweet); and last but not least, “pudding.”
No matter how you look at it, the origin of “pudding” isn’t pretty. It came into English in the 13th century, and the OED says the source was “probably” the Anglo-Norman word bodeyn, which meant sausage or (in the plural) animal intestines or entrails.
According to this theory, the “b” changed to “p” in English, and the “-eyn” ending was altered by analogy with similar English nouns ending in “-ing.”
Where did the French bodeyn come from? The OED traces it to the Old French boudin (for sausage, entrails, intestines, or a person’s stomach). But Oxford says any further etymology is “uncertain and disputed.”
However, the OED does mention “an alternative etymology” that derives the word from “a Germanic base” meaning a boil, ulcer, or swollen body part.
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology also says the ultimate source could be prehistoric Germanic roots (like bod-), having to do with boils, swellings, or bloatings.
While both Chambers and the OED rule out Latin as a source, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins disagrees. It traces the Old French boudin ultimately to botellus, Latin for “sausage.”
Regardless of its earlier history, when “pudding” entered English in the 13th century it meant a stuffed entrail—that is, a sausage.
As the OED defines it, “pudding” originally meant “the stomach or one of the entrails (in early use sometimes the neck) of a pig, sheep, or other animal, stuffed with a mixture of minced meat, suet, oatmeal, seasoning, etc., and boiled.”
The English word was first recorded in 1287 as “pudinges” and “pundinges” in Norwich city documents that were otherwise rendered in Latin.
The first appearance in an English context is found in a Middle English poem, The Land of Cokaygne (circa 1300), in a reference to “fat podinges, / Rich met to princez and kinges.”
A “pudding” continued to mean a sausage until well into the 19th century, and many English speakers still use the word that way. In British usage a “black pudding” is a blood sausage, and in Ireland and Scotland a “white pudding” is a sausage made with oatmeal and suet, sometimes with the addition of shredded pork.
Meanwhile (banish food from your mind), the plural “puddings” was used to mean “the bowels, entrails, or guts of a person or animal” from the mid-16th to the late 19th century, the OED says.
This cringeworthy example is from Lodowick Lloyd’s The Pilgrimage of Princes (1573): “The Foxe … did bite and scratche the yongman so sore, that his puddynges gusshed out of his side.”
We won’t burden you with any more examples of that usage.
Futhermore, “pudding” was a slang term for both the vagina and the penis from the mid-16th century, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang. Citations for this use of “pudding” date from 1538 (meaning vagina) and 1546 (meaning penis). In our own time, “pud” is used this way in the male sense and is found in masturbatory verbal phrases like “pull one’s pud.”
Getting back to food, the more familiar meaning of “pudding” and the one that survives in general use today, also came into written use around the mid- to late 1500s. In this sense, it meant “a sweet or savoury dish made with flour, milk, etc.,” the OED says.
Why call these dishes “puddings”? Probably because of the association with sausage casings. As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, the word “came to be applied to any food cooked in a bag (hence the cannon-ball shape of the traditional Christmas pudding).”
The earliest definite sighting in the OED is from John Rider’s dictionary Bibliotheca Scholastica (1573): “A pudding made of milke, cheese, and herbs.”
And in a 1736 letter, Lord Castledurrow compliments Jonathan Swift on his hospitality: “Your puddings … are the best sweet thing I ever eat.”
The word “pudding” as used today “refers almost exclusively to sweet dishes,” the OED says, with exceptions like Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like dish that’s savory rather than sweet.
Furthermore, as used “chiefly in Britain,” the word generally means “any sweet dish served as a dessert,” Oxford says, a sense recorded in the early 20th century.
Although the OED doesn’t say so, “pudding” in the US is a soft, creamy dessert with the consistency of a custard.
An American would not refer to a cake or a pie or an apple crisp as a “pudding” (the cake-like exceptions are “bread pudding” and “sticky toffee pudding”).
The American usage is no small matter, and the OED should take note. The difference between “pudding” in the US and the UK “is the one that diverges most, food-wise, in the two countries,” the linguist Lynne Murphy writes in 2008 on her blog Separated by a Common Language.
Finally, you might be interested in a post we wrote in 2012 about whether the proof is in the pudding or the eating of it.