If you haven’t yet seen this record-breaking pumpkin at the Alaska State Fair, please, by all means, go see this pumpkin.
It weighs 2,051 pounds, beating the previous state record by almost 600 pounds, and it grew an average 25 pounds a day, requiring anywhere from 70-200 gallons of water each day while Dale Marshall cultivated the pumpkin in his greenhouse this summer.
The word “pumpkin” entered the English language in the 1640s, an alteration of the French “pompone,” but it’s not because the plant comes from France or was even part of a European diet back then. As you may know, the pumpkin is native to North America, especially the southern U.S. For thousands of years, American Indian tribes had harvested pumpkins, though most tribes just used a general term for gourd. The Navajo language, for instance, includes the word “ndilkal,” meaning any kind of gourd fruit like pumpkins, watermelon or cucumbers.
So it was when the early European colonists and traders brought back pumpkins that the English adopted the French word, “pumpion,” meaning melon, to refer to this giant orange-shelled gourd.
Pumpion comes from the Latin “peponem,” also meaning melon, which was borrowed from the Greek “pepon.” Pepon, in ancient Greek, literally meant cooked by the sun, indicating the fruit’s ripeness. Which makes sense, for the Proto-Indo-European root of “pepon” is “pekw,” meaning to cook or ripen.
The pekw root is quite a source for a diverse group of words: apricot, biscuit, kitchen, peptic and even charcuterie. So when Marshall said that the pumpkin grew for 89 days in his sun-drenched greenhouse in Anchorage, thanks to the sun-drenched summer we just had, it was literally cooking.
It wasn’t too long after the word “pumpkin” was coined that someone invented the pumpkin pie (from the 1650s). My guess is the English because they love turning anything into a pie. Anything. I mean, just check out that nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” — they were baking blackbirds into pies.
By 1806, the Americans had changed the spelling somewhat to “punkin,” to indicate a more folksy way of talking about the American gourd, distinguishing it from the European pumpkin. The early 19th century was an interesting time in the American English language as they were trying to carve out a more unique national and cultural identity apart from, primarily, the British. In fact, that’s when Americans started dropping the letter “u” from words such as “colour” and “humour,” switching around the letters r and e like in “centre,” making more phonetic use of the letter z as in “recognize” (typically spelled “recognise” in England).
My favorite change is the dropping of the letter “k” from many words ending in “–ck.” For instance, before the 19th century, “music” was spelled “musick.” But when American Noah Webster wrote his influential dictionary in 1828, he dropped the “k,” and now “music” is the accepted spelling in England, too. Some of the changes that Webster made make sense — getting rid of superfluous letters, for one — but really his justification for these, frankly, needless changes was to distinguish American English from British English.
It looks like Alaska is about to face its own exodus of British-ness from the state with the recently announced departure of BP (formerly British Petroleum) from all natural resource operations. The London-based corporation is selling all of its assets to a Texas firm called Hilcorp — this is a straight-up pumpkin for punkin transaction. (My roots are Texan, so I can code switch into a southern accent faster than a prairie fire with a tail wind.)
We’ll be learning more about Hilcorp in the news over the coming months, I’m sure, but what we do know now is that their presence in Alaska is growing about as fast as the record-breaking pumpkin.
“Grow” is from the Old English word “growan,” used specifically for the growth of plants. It comes from the Proto-Germanic “gro,” from the PIE root “ghre,” meaning to become green. In fact, grow and grass share that same root.
Around the 14th century, we started to use grow in reference to human beings, and a century later in reference to animals. Before grow caught on in those contexts, the English used “weaxan,” as in “wax,” to increase. Think: a waxing crescent moon indicates the moon exposing more of its surface in the night sky.
We will wax nostalgic about BP’s resource development and support for Alaska nonprofits, and hope that Hilcorp more than fills that vacancy and investment in Alaskans.
Jared Griffin is associate professor of English at Kodiak College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.