Old-timey flatulent bread

December 13, 2013

Being that it’s Friday the 13th, I’ve decided to come from way out in left field with this — and it has nothing to do with black cats, walking under ladders, superstitions or bad luck of any kind.

Instead, it has to do with bread. Pumpernickle, to be exact.

With just a hint of sweetness from molasses and brown sugar, this cocoa-darkened rye bread also relies on bread flour, rye flour and cornmeal to produce the product we know. Sounds like pretty nice stuff, huh? But what pumpernickle is today isn’t quite what it’s origin tells us it was.

There have actually been two stories, or legends, centering around the origin of this brown bread — and each seems to consider pumpernickle bread to be indigestable.

The first story claims that Napolean — yes, THAT little guy — while invading Germany, was brought dark German rye bread for dinner. He declared that he wouldn’t eat it and said instead: “C’est pain pour Nicole!” which, when translated, means that Napolean thought the stuff had exited from the back end of his horse, Nicole.

OK, I can’t translate French, so that’s not true. He DID, however, think the bread wasn’t for him but better suited for his horse, Nicole.

Not many years ago, this version of the etymology was given legs by Roger Moore, the James Bond actor, who told Johnny Carson about Napolean’s claim.

That story, however, has been thoroughly cooked enough to be untrue. That’s because the real story, which came to the world in about 1756, dates well before Napolean’s time of 1769-1821. And three years before that, in 1753 … well, you’ll see.

The other story, however, may give you just as much pause as the first — though it will also produce a few laughs or gasps, depending on whether you are male or female, I suppose. Just remember: Story No. 1 is false (sorry, Mr. Bond a.k.a. Moore), and Story No. 2 is true.

Using my vast experience at researching incredibly complex and super-important facts, I went to Snopes — the self-proclaimed defiitive Internet reference source for urban legens, folklore, myths, rumors and misinformation — to see what those know-it-alls have to say.

And here it is, verbatim: “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.

OK, a mystery is hardly ever solved with the discovery of one measly reference. And so, I did what any hurried researcher would do … I gave up.

But in telling a friend about this pumpernickle mystery, I was told a few days later to Google the name Johan Christoph Adelung, a German philogist from waaaaaaaaaay back.

Apparently this Adelung fella claims that, in the vernacular, “pumpen” was a synonym for being flatulent, and “nickel” was a form of the word Nicholas, which he says was associated with an appellation associated with a malevolent spirit or demon.

And so, there is additional proof that Story No. 2 is, indeed, true. But once the Snopes and Google doors were opened, more information began to flow my way. Such as …

— The American Heritage Dictionary adds that pumpernickle is “so named from being hard to digest.”

— A variant of this explanation is also given by the German etymological dictionary “Kluge” that says that the word pumpernickel is older than its usage for the particular type of bread and may have been used as a mocking name for a person of unrefined manners (“farting nick”) first. The change of meaning may have been caused by its use as a mocking expression for the (in the eyes of outsiders) unrefined rye bread produced by the Westphalian population.

— The Oxford English Dictionary, however, does not commit to any particular etymology for the word. It suggests it may mean a lout or booby, but also says, “origin uncertain.” The OED currently states the first use in English is from 1756. However, there is an earlier use. An eight-page drinking song titled “Beef and Butt Beer, against Mum and Pumpernickel” was published in London in 1753.

So, there you have it — the official etymology of pumpernickle, straight out of left field.

Now I think I’ll rehearse that 260-year-old drinking song.

W. Curt Vincent is the general manager and editor of the Bladen Journal. He can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or by email at