A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "pumpernickel"?

December 18, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

Over the years I've heard two origins for the word 'pumpernickel.' Both seem reasonable enough, so it's hard to tell which might be the real one. One claims that it was Napoleon proclaiming the bread was only fit for his horse, Nicol. Or, in French, bon pour nicol. The other etymology states that it comes from two old German words for 'to fart' and 'demon.' I must admit I first heard the Napoleon theory on the tonight show when Roger Moore told it to Johnny Carson. I have heard it told by others since, but I fear they may be quoting the ersatz Bond. What's the Straight Dope?

You know, even in Maine they must have dictionaries. This from Webster's:

Main Entry: pum •per •nick •el

Pronunciation: 'p&m-p&r-"ni-k&l

Function: noun

Etymology: German, from pumpern to break wind + Nickel goblin; from its reputed indigestibility

Date: 1756

: a dark coarse sourdough bread made of unbolted rye flour

So even though Roger Moore said it, it's not true. The first citation is well before Napoleon's time (1769-1821), and also just before Webster's time (1758-1843). It's entirely possible that Webster (a New Englander, like yourself) was dining on this indigestible delicacy as he compiled the first dictionary, though the likelihood of Webster actually asking His Highness the Emperor Napoleon about this folk etymology is remote.

All that having been said, the entry above doesn't convey matters as vividly as it might. Here's what snopes has to say:

The true origin of "pumpernickel" is nearly as strange, if somewhat less savory. "Pumpern" was a New High German word similar in meaning to the English "fart" (so chosen because, like the word "achoo," it imitated the sound it described), and "Nickel" was a form of the name Nicholas, an appellation commonly associated with a goblin or devil (e.g., "Old Nick" is a familiar name for Satan). Hence, pumpernickel is the "devil's fart," allegedly a reference to the bread's indigestible qualities and hence the effect it produced on those who consumed it. (www.snopes2.com/language/stor ies/pumper.htm

On the one hand you have to admire the Germans for their honesty. On the other hand you think, people eat this stuff?

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