Irregardless Magazine

» » Stuff and Nonsense « «

Etymology of ‘Pumpernickel’ and ‘Santa Claus’

It’s a common myth that pumpernickel bread is named after one of Napoleon’s horses, but while Pumpernickel is a great name for a horse, this is simply untrue. For one, pumpernickel bread is much older than Napoleon, but there’s also the fact that pumpernickel is a German word with an etymology much more colorful than ‘pain pour Nicol‘:

The first part of the word, pumpern-, was a Middle High German word meaning ‘to fart’. It was, in fact, an onomatopoeia. Go ahead, say pumpern. Kind of sounds like someone trying to hold in a fart, doesn’t it? Now picture some mediæval German lords and ladies saying it. Fun, huh? Pumpern survives into modern German as ‘to pound or thump‘.

The second part of the word, -nickel, is a German nickname for the Devil or devilish little creatures. This is actually how we get our English word nickel too:

“Nickel picked up its name at a time when men thought it was sent by the Devil and not by Heaven. In the early part of the eighteenth century fresh loads of ore were laid open in Saxony where from times immemorable silver and copper mines had been worked. This new ore was so glittering and full of promise as to cause the greatest excitement, but after innumerable trials and endless labor all that could be obtained from the ore was a worthless metal. In disgust the superstitious miners named the ore kupfer-nickel (copper-nickel) after ‘Old Nick’ and his mischievous gnomes who were charged with plaguing the miners and bewitching the ore.” (William H. Baldwin from his article “The story of Nickel. I. How ‘Old Nick’s’ gnomes were outwitted“, 1931)

The name Old Nick does not refer to Santa Claus as some might assume, but instead refers to an English seafarer’s name for the Devil. It comes from the nickar water-demons of German folklore who represent the Norse god Odin’s destructive spirit. The Christian St Nicholas actually became patron saint of sailors after confusion between ‘Old Nick’ and ‘St Nick’.

This is not the only connection between Odin and Santa Claus though. Santa Claus is an American corruption of the Dutch Sinterklaas, their nickname for Saint Nicholas. English speaking Americans began the myth of Santa Claus after mingling with the Dutch settlers of New York. In Holland, Sinterklaas carries a staff, rides a huge white horse and has mischievous helpers who spy on children. “These features all also link him to the legend of Odin“.

So if pumpern- means ‘fart’ and -nickel means ‘devil’ then pumpernickel can literally be thought of as ‘devil’s fart‘. Why would anyone call a bread ‘devil’s fart’? Well, like other dark rye breads (which are particularly mild breads for anyone who may be averse to gluten), pumpernickel is high in fiber and can cause some particularly…uh…malodorous pelvic discomfort.