Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pumpkin Eater

I was chatting with my sister last night 
and told her I needed an idea for today's blog.
She suggested lots of great ideas about apples 
and the apple and peach orchards near where we grew up.
So I began researching apples, 
but soon I stumbled upon a reference to pumpkins.

photo courtesy of

With Thanksgiving's arrival tomorrow, pumpkins seemed like a timely topic,
and my curiosity was piqued when I read about some of the ways
the word pumpkin was used in the past.

Of course, they weren't always called pumpkins. 
The original word for pumpkin was borrowed into English 
from Middle French pompon, 
which referred not only to pumpkins but to any edible melon or gourd.
In Middle English, the word was spelled pompione or pompion.
Later, pomkin and  pumkin were common forms.
I found this citation in the Oxford English Dictionary:
Their wigwams the midst of their planting grounds
where they raised their beans, corn, and pompions.
(C. De W. Brownwell 1864)
It reminded me of some of the first Thanksgiving stories I've read.

But what I find more interesting about the history of the word pumpkin
is its use through the centuries as an insult, 
especially when leveled at overweight men.
In Merry Wives of Windsor
Shakespeare refers to one male character as  "this grosse-watry Pumpion."
J. Fletcher, in Rule a Wife (1625), excoriates one man, calling him:
"another Pumpion, the cram'd sonne of a Starv'd Vserer"
(the crammed son of a starved usurer or money lender).
This historic use of the word may explain the nursery rhyme 
that ridicules the cuckold Peter:
Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn't keep her.

photo courtesy of

But I don't think any of these insults can compare with the subtle
swipe delivered in this 1640 quote from R. Brome in the work Sparagus Garden:

                    "Pompeons are as good meat for such a hoggish thing as thou art."                                  

Later, the use of pumpkin as an insult expanded to include
any stupid, self-important, or arrogant person, 
as in this rather contemptuous exhortation
from Joseph Tinker Buckingham's 1852 Specimens of Newspaper Literature:
"come shake your dull noddles, ye Pumpkins, and bawl."

On the other hand,
since the end of the Victorian era in the United States,
pumpkin or punkin has also been used as a term of endearment.
So tomorrow, as families and friends gather together
to celebrate their blessings,
let's hope if someone calls someone else a pumpkin,
they really mean it--
or not.

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