photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Matt314






Dark, dense German bread made from coarsely ground wholemeal rye.


The word is first recorded in English in The German Spy: or, Familiar Letters from A Gentleman on his Travels thro’ Germany to His Friend in England (1738) by the English writer and surveyor Thomas Lediard (1685-1743). In his first letter, the author wrote:

[A young French Merchant] told me he should now put my Patience to the Trial, and bid me prepare to look Poverty and Misery in the Face, in their most ugly Shapes: For we were going to travel thro’ a Country, which had as great a Share of both, as any in Germany; I mean Westphalia.

There, they have stopped at the inn of “a miserable village”:

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.





The German noun Pumpernickel is attested in 1628 in the sense of a lout, and in 1654 in the sense of a dark, dense bread characteristic of Westphalia.

The element Nickel is a familiar form of the forename Nikolaus, Nicholas, here used pejoratively, and the noun Pumper means fart, so that Pumpernickel is literally Nick the farter, that is to say an uncouth guy who farts, belches, etc.*

The noun Pumper is from the verb pumpern, to knock, fall noisily. Onomatopoeic, it is comparable to the English verb to bump.

As applied to Westphalian bread, Pumpernickel was originally a depreciative term used by outsiders, probably on account of its being difficult to digest and causing flatulence. But the word was also used in the senses of a small plump child or person and by extension of a hulking man, so that it might have been applied to Westphalian bread in allusion to the ‘squat’ shape of the loaf.

(* Pumpernickel is therefore comparable to the Dutch derogatory proper name Hans Poep, which was coined around 1600 to designate a German, especially a migrant worker from Westphalia. Poep may be from German Bube, malicious, mean person (it is the origin of Dutch boef, meaning scoundrel), with a probable allusion to Dutch poep, meaning shit.)


In a similar manner, English had Brown George, denoting a loaf of a coarse kind of brown bread, and as a sailors’ term, a hard and coarse biscuit. And tommy, pet form of Thomas, was a soldiers’ name for the brown bread formerly supplied as rations. Also, the noun nickel, denoting the metal, is a shortening of German Kupfernickel, a compound of Kupfer, meaning copper, and Nickel, shortening of Nikolaus.


Evidence that the Westphalians themselves did not name their bread pumpernickel in the early 17th century seems to be found in An Itinerary Containing His Ten Yeeres Travell Through the Twelve Dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Italy, Turky, France, England, Scotland & Ireland (1617), by the English traveller and writer Fynes Moryson (1566?-1630):

West-Phalians devoure gammons of bacon, and have poore Innes (vulgarly arme wirtshausen), browne bread (vulgarly cranck broat, that is, sicke bread), thin drink (vulgarly dinne bier).


From the 17th century onwards, a popular etymology is found that the name derives from French bon pour Nicol(e), good (only) for Nicol(e), Nicol(e) being taken as the name of a horse. Thomas Lediard told the story in the above-mentioned book:

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 ça 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 engrafed [sic] into our Language, and thence produced the barbarous Word Pompernickel”.

And a letter published in Old England: or, The Constitutional Journal of 17th September 1743 contains the following:

The only Commodities we import from Hanover, and which we cannot be without, are Linnens, Westphalia Hams, * Bonpournicole, and Wild Boars Heads.

* Whereas several of our Readers may not understand this Word Bonpournicole, we think it necessary to give them the Meaning and Etymology of it; which is as follows: A French Gentleman came to Hanover some Years ago upon a Mare, whom he call’d Nicole: The People of the Inn, where he set up, brought him some of their BEST BREAD, which was a black Rye Bread, extreamly [sic] heavy and sour, with Straws of a considerable Length in it. The Frenchman would not touch it himself, but gave it to his Mare, saying, Cela est Bon pour Nicole. From which Circumstance it hath since retain’d the Name of Bonpournicole, or, as it is commonly pronounc’d, Pompernicle.

The same year, the very same story was told in French in the anonymous Voiage historique et politique de Suisse, d’Italie et d’Allemagne (son cheval, his horse):

Un François lui a donné le nom de bon pour nickel ; on lui en présenta à manger, & il dit en le voyant qu’il étoit bon pour nickel qui étoit le nom de son cheval, on en a fait le mot de Pompernickel.

In 1688, in Templum pacis et paciscentium, leges imperii fundamentales, & imprimis instrumenta pacis Westphalicæ, noviomagicæ, & armititii Ratisbonensis, the German jurist Jakob Otto (1635-1703) had already written that bon pour Nicol were the words of a certain Frenchman (panem, bread, equo suo, his horse):

Quem Pumpernickel dicunt? quasi bon pour Nicol, quod verbum erat Galii cujusdam ejusmodi horrendum panem equo suo Nicol dicto, objicientis.

This was also the etymology given by the German writer Paul Jacob Marperger (1656-1730) in Vollständiges Küch-und Keller-Dictionarium (Complete Kitchen and Cellar Dictionary – 1716):

Bumpernickel: oder eigentlich (= or really) Bon pour Nicol

This folk etymology is also reflected in the form Bonpournickel, or Bonpournikel, which was for example used by the German physician and chemist Friedrich Hoffmann (1660-1742) in the title of his 1695 book about Westphalian bread, Propempticon Inaugurale De Pane Grossiori Westphalorum, Vulgo Bonpournickel.

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