pomfret

Until today, I had known this word only as the name of the town in which one found Fredonia (not Freedonia, setting of the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup; this one was the site of the first gas well in the US). New York State’s counties are subdivided into towns (other places tend to call these townships), and within towns there may be villages. It happens that my grandmother used to live in the village (10,000 people, but not a city, so a village) of Fredonia, in the town of Pomfret, Chautauqua County, New York State. The name always made me think of apples (pommes, and they do grow around there) and perhaps British people (poms), and guitars and worries. Oh, and French fries (pommes frites). On a typographical day it might remind me of Nofret, a face named after an Egyptian queen. But what it did not make me think of is a marine fish.

In fact, there are several places called Pomfret, and not one of them is on the ocean (though some are an easy drive from it). And yet it turns out that pomfret is also the name of a large, roundish fish of the sort that looks permanently dismayed – it has a horrified frown as though it had just found itself in a village miles and miles from the ocean. Which ocean, by the way? Well, pomfrets swim in all of the non-icy ones. The biggest pomfret, in ichthyological Latin the Brama brama, gets up to a metre long and is, apparently, good eatin’.

So how did all these landlubbin’ places get named after a fish? Well, they didn’t really. The fish’s name was formerly pamflet (though I must say they look like a rather more substantial bit of literature); that, in turn, is thought to have come from pamplet, a diminutive form of either pampo or pamplo, both Portuguese names for this fish or a similar one. It’s not really clear, however, why that p became an f.

As for the towns, they all trace back to Pontefract, the name of a town (in this case the more usual sense of town) in the West Riding of Yorkshire, part of Wakefield, southeast of Leeds. Its name comes from Latin for “broken bridge.” In the grand tradition of British pronunciation, the phonemes got sanded down over time, and locals came to say the name as “pomfret.” Pomfret was at one time written on maps as the place name, but now it’s Pontefract. And some little licorice coins once referred to often enough as Pomfret cakes are now as a rule Pontefract cakes. These sweets display the local castle, picturesque enough if you’re not Richard II, who was murdered there in 1400 (or, as Shakespeare put it in Richard III, “Within the guilty closure of thy walls / Richard the second here was hack’d to death”).

Personally, given all the various food options associated with pomfret, I’d still go with a slice of my grandmother’s Concord grape pie. No fish, no foul (but maybe a county fair), no licorice, but guaranteed purple teeth.

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