It’s orange, except when it isn’t. And it’s big, except when it isn’t. But when it’s big, it can be very big, and it can keep getting bigger and bigger, sometimes until it’s too big and it just breaks right open. Hazards of competitive growing!
We all think we know what a pumpkin is, but it’s not actually tidily defined botanically; there are several species of winter squash that it can refer to, and the semantic ambit varies by location – in Australia, it refers to pretty much any kind of winter squash, whereas in North America, it has to at the very least be carvable into a jack-o’-lantern.
You can’t define a pumpkin by whether you can make pumpkin pie with it; you can make “pumpkin pie” with any of a great many winter squashes, as my mother demonstrated throughout the autumns of my youth. The flavour of pumpkin pie has just about nothing to do with pumpkin anyway; take away the pumpkin spice and you have a pretty mild and unexciting mashed squash mixture. And pumpkin spice is a mixture of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice (sometimes lacking one or two of those) – good but not gourd. So flavourwise, pumpkin is famous for something that it has never actually contributed, just as looks-wise it’s famous for pretending to be something it’s not (a spooky face). I’m drinking a pumpkin ale right now, and they say they made it with real pumpkin, but how would I know? It’s just the spices they added that matter.
And anyway, though they are nutritious and economical, whole pumpkins are unusual among food items in being often bought but seldom eaten. We trepan them, eviscerate them, cut scary faces in them, put candles in them, attribute magic to them, and eventually throw them out, not always before they’re really too old and rotten. Sometimes we cut straight to the chucking: pumpkin chunking is what they call loading pumpkins into ballistic siege weapons and hurling them to smash yonder.
So pumpkins excel in seeming to be what they’re not. And also in growing and growing and growing (the biggest competition pumpkins can add 20 kilograms a day and in the end weigh as much as a car; the biggest of the usual domestic kind can weigh as much as a person, anyway). Which makes the name pumpkin quite apposite, because of how it came to be what it is.
Where does pumpkin come from? The trail seems to start with Greek πέπτω peptō ‘ripen’, which produced πέπων pepōn ‘large melon’, which Latin took as pepo ‘large melon, pumpkin’ (seems kinda even vaguer, doesn’t it?), which grew to French pompon. (Imagine cheerleaders at a pepo rally shaking pumpkins!) English borrowed pompon but for some reason (because grow!) expanded it to pompion. And there it might have stayed – pompion is still a word in English – but it got pumped a bit more to become pumpion, and then it took on new kin with the diminutive –kin we also see in bodkin, jerkin, larkin, gherkin, and bumpkin – descended from the same Germanic original that became modern German –chen as in Liebchen and Gretchen.
And if that’s not enough, there’s the added verbal inflation that occurs when, every fall, newspaper writers have to put forth pieces about pumpkins and pumpkin-related things and, in fear of using the word pumpkin too much, fall prey to tawny-gourdism, that inelegant variation that fosters such newspaper-only synonyms such as pontiff for pope, temblor for earthquake, and incessant usage of lexical muscle-pulls such as tawny gourd for pumpkin.
So yeah. It has become more and other than it originally was. Meanwhile, other cultures actually cook pumpkins and eat them without all this noise about “pumpkin” this and that that tastes like non-pumpkin things. But we have preferred apocolocyntosis, hyperinflation, graven images, ballistics, and lots of sugar and spice. Well, the fall is upon us; it’s all gourd.