October 30, 2013

Case File #013.10.30: PUMPKIN

While pumpkins have been a part of the Halloween tradition for just a mere two centuries or so, the noun pumpkin has been around for at least twice that long and its antecedents are downright ancient. The current form of the word appeared in the mid-seventeenth century and quickly displaced the previous form, pumpion, which itself had come into use circa 1540 to replace the older pompon, a word borrowed directly from the Middle French at the end of the fifteenth century. Pompon had evolved from the Old French popon—a transformation that likely occurred during the late fourteenth century—and the Old French was a descendant of the classical Latin pepo. But the Latin word didn't mean only “pumpkin”; depending on the context in which it was used, it could also mean “watermelon or other such fruit.” This is because its source was the Greek pepon, which meant “ripened or cooked melon.” Now, if you're like me, you're wondering why the ancient Romans thought a Greek word for soft fruit would make a good label for pumpkins, and furthermore, you're probably asking yourself why they thought the same word should also be applied to watermelons. Sadly, the answers to those questions are lost in the fog of history. We can be happy, though, that pumpkin didn't ultimately inherit its ancestor's association with watermelons, because Halloween would be about as spooky as Christmas if jack-o'-lanterns were green and red instead of orange.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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