Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Devilish Origins of "Pumpernickel"

For the latest installment of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I take a look at the peculiar history of the word pumpernickel — a kind of German bread with an origin that turns out to be downright devilish.

Pumpernickel, the name of a dark rye bread from the Westphalia region of Germany, has attracted more than its fair share of folk etymologies. One popular story involves Napoleon and his horse. Supposedly, when Napoleon was in Westphalia while invading Germany, he was served the local brown bread, and responded that the bread was only good for his horse Nicol (short for "Nicholas"). One version has him exclaiming "C'est du pain pour Nicol!" ("That is bread for Nicol!"), while in another variant of the tale, he shouts, "C'est bon pour Nicol!" ("That is good for Nicol!")

The story that the bread was only good for a horse named Nicol actually predates Napoleon. In fact, the very first English-language appearance of pumpernickel in 1738 (before Napoleon was even born) gives the bon pour Nicol derivation. Thomas Lediard describes the bread in The German Spy, a book presented as a series of letters "written by a Gentleman on his Travels to his Friend in England." Lediard had spent his early career in Hamburg and was well-versed in German culture, though he plays with the epistolary form to embellish on his experiences. In the first letter, the "gentleman" recounts staying the night in a dirt-poor village in Westphalia:

During our Supper, having heard of a Sort of Bread, which is their chief Food in this Country, called Pompernickel, I had the Curiosity to call for a Slice of it, which being hewed with a Hatchet, from a large Loaf of at least a Bushel, was accordingly served, on a wooden Trencher, with great Form: But I had enough of the Looks of it, not to be tempted to taste it.

The Colour of it is a dark brown, pretty near approaching to Black, and by the Hew, one would take it to be a Compound of some very filthy Materials. Upon Enquiry, I found it was made of Rye, coarsely ground, with all the Bran left in it, and that there had not been the greatest Care taken, to sever it from the Pieces of Straw, Hair, and other Nastiness, which had been swept with the Corn from the threshing Floor.

After that less-than-appetizing description comes the folk-etymological explanation:

I was curious to know the Etymology of the strange Name they gave it; but my Enquiry out-reached the Sphere of our Landlord's Knowledge, and I had remained in Ignorance of this important Secret, had not a Fellow, who took Care to inform us he was the School-master of the Village, laid down his Inch of Pipe, and solv'd the Matter, in the following Manner:

"A Frenchman (said he) travelling thro' this Country, and asking for Bread, had a Slice of this (for we have no other) Sort, presented him; Upon which he cried out ca est bon pour Nicol (or, as our Parish-Priest interprets it, that is good for Nicholas) a Name, it seems, he had given his Horse; which Words, in Imitation of our Betters, we have engrafted into our Language, and thence produced the barbarous Word Pompernickel."

The bon pour Nicol story evidently originated as a seventeenth-century German joke that got taken seriously somewhere along the way. But back then, pumpernickel had a range of other meanings in German before getting attached to the Westphalian bread. As the eminent etymologist Anatoly Liberman explains on OUPblog, Pumpernickel was a name given to a man or child who was short and fat, and it was also a mischievous figure in German folklore. As Liberman puts it, Pumpernickel "emerges as a vulgar clown, a prankster, the hero of drunks and whores, a figure typical of low popular culture."

And it turns out the true origin of pumpernickel is even more colorful than the story of Napoleon's horse. Pumpern is a German verb meaning "to fart," and Nickel, like Old Nick in English, was a name for the devil, so it actually breaks down as "farting devil." The metal nickel shares in this diabolical genealogy, since it was originally called kupfernickel ("copper devil") by a mineralogist who was having a devil of a time extracting copper ore before realizing he was dealing with a new metallic element.

The bread likely began to be called pumpernickel, according to Liberman, towards the end of the harsh Thirty Years' War by German soldiers who had to eat this peasant bread from Westphalia as part of their rations. The indigestion that they suffered would make the "farting devil" appellation all too appropriate. Fortunately, though the name stuck, pumpernickel bread evolved into something much more palatable!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.