Share This Spectacular Vernacular
We bake homemade bread weekly. This past week’s decision to make pumpernickel bread led me to one of the funnier etymologies I’ve ever encountered.
Before we get there, I should clarify a few details. First, we use a bread machine. I admire all of you who actually make the bread from scratch, but modern technology to the rescue.
Second, when I say we, I should explain that my Ever Patient Partner in Life (aka, EPPIL) handles the mixing of ingredients, operating the machine, and other such details. I eat the bread. Go team!
As the ingredients were being prepared, I asked why it was called pumpernickel bread. Was there a pumpernickel spice?
EPPIL suggested I go research that. I’m confident that was to broaden my education and had nothing to do with getting me out of the kitchen.
Anyway, I quickly discovered that there is no such spice. The bread takes on its distinctive coloring and flavor from the rye used, though other ingredients vary greatly by region. Its dense texture and history as peasant food led to many people dismissing it as an inferior product.
And this is where the etymology gets to be fun.
There isn’t universal agreement. Most people agree that it doesn’t derive its name from Napoleon who, legend had it, dismissed the bread as unsuitable for human consumption and barely edible for his horse, Nickel.
The commonly accepted history traces back to the German slang usage of the common name Nicholas as “Old Nick” or the devil. Nickel was often used to refer to a loutish person or a goblin.
Which leaves us with “pumper,” or a poof of air. A specific poof. Flatulence. It comes from pumpern, which means breaking wind.
By the way, another commonly used term in Germany for the bread was krankbrot or sick bread, so maybe devil’s fart was a slight step up. Or down. Perspective.
Armed with this knowledge, I returned to the kitchen, inhaled deeply, and commented on the wafting aroma of a devil’s fart. My fourteen-year-old Super Nephew, who happened to be visiting, thought that was hilarious. EPPIL was less appreciative.
Consider this your vocabulary education for the week. Bet you’ll never look at a slice of pumpernickel bread without smiling.