Pumpernickel, the name for the dark-brown, rye bread, comes to us from the German. The German name has been around since at least 1663. The origin is not certain, but it most likely comes from the dialectal German verb pumpern, meaning to fart, and nickel, meaning demon or imp. (Which is from the name Nicholas, a common appellation for evil spirits, as in the English Old Nick; the name of the metal is from the German Kupfernickel, or demon copper, so-called because its color or the ore is deceptive and resembles that of copper.) Evidently the bread is so named because it gives one gas.
Pumpernickel first appears in English in Thomas Nugent’s 1756 travelogue The Grand Tour. Nugent, however, gets the etymology wrong, repeating a story that is retold to this day:
Their bread is of the very coarsest kind, ill baked, and as black as a coal, for they never sift their flour. The people of the country call it Pompernickel, which is only a corruption of a French name given it by a gentleman of that nation, who passed through this country. It is reported, that when this coarse bread was brought to table, hye looked at it and said, Qu’il etoit bon pour Nickel, That it was good for Nickel, which was the name of his horse.
Later versions make out the unnamed Frenchman to be Napoleon—an obvious anachronism—and change the French phrase to pain pour Nicol, bread for Nichole. It’s a fun story, but quite untrue.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton