I’ve written about many food word origins here on CulinaryLore. I have been meaning to write about the origin of the word pumpernickel for a while, especially since I had read it had some surprising derivations. I thought I may as well do some research of my own to confirm these odd and funny origins.
Pumpernickel is an unleavened dark bread made from whole rye grain which is prepared using a sourdough process. It is claimed to have originated during the fifteenth or sixteenth century in Westphalia, Germany, where it was developed during a famine.
It is often suggested that pumpernickel has French origins. Specifically, it has been claimed that it derives from the French phrase bon pour Nicol or pain pour Nicol. This is often said to have come from the lips of Napolean, or at least from Napolean’s soldiers. Nicol, it turns out, is a French nickname for a poor-quality horse. According to the story, Napolean’s soldiers, camped in Germany, complained about the indigestible local brown bread. In some versions of the story, Napolean replied that his horse, whose name was Nickel, liked it well enough: “It’s bread for Nickel.” He told his soldiers that if the bread was good enough for his horse, it was good enough for them. Other versions of the story have Napolean saying the bread was only good enough for a low-quality horse. Which version of the story you believe does not matter, since neither of them is the origin of the word pumpernickel.
Pumpernickel does not come from French, however, but German. The first part, pumpern is old German word for ‘fart’ or ‘breaking wind.’ The last part, Nickel, comes from the name Nikolaous, or ‘Old Nick,’ a euphemistic name for the Devil, or a demon, goblin, etc. The name pumpernickel may have come from the bread’s tendency to cause flatulence, probably owing to its very high fiber content, but this is only speculation.