The Great Punkin Controversy

tumblr_nus05pehML1tg0kfio1_500Starbucks watchers were taken aback last month when the company made a surprise announcement about its standard-bearing fall beverage. This year, for the first time in its 12-year history, a Pumpkin Spice Latte will contain actual pumpkin, instead of merely spices associated with pumpkin pie.

I will not be able to report on the difference, regrettably. I never tasted the pumpkinless Pumpkin Spice Latte, so vile did it sound to me.

The PSL, as it’s affectionately known, has a cultlike following, supposedly. Starbucks has provided it with a cutely anthropomorphized Tumblr featuring photos of the beverage wearing sunglasses with bright orange rims. The company also has a Twitter feed with 114,000 followers. It promotes the hashtag #PSL and claims it’s used by 3,000 people a day, though when I searched for the hashtag, a substantial majority of tweets that came up were about the Pakistan Super (cricket) League.

But PSL is undoubtedly successful and has spawned many imitators, one of which leads to my topic of the day. A number of times while watching the U.S. Open tennis tournament, I saw this ad for Dunkin’ Donuts’ pumpkin-flavored food and beverage items:



What caught and gnawed at my ears was the way the announcer says punkin. I grew up in New York and never knew from punkin. Same with my wife, from Massachusetts. Similarly, the more than a dozen people I’ve polled over the last week, from various states, all reported that they grew up saying pumkin.

I first became aware of thepunkin pronunciation when I moved to Pennsylvania a few decades back, and especially when I started teaching in Delaware, in which a contest called Punkin Chunkin (it’s not what you think) is held each November. The state’s well-regarded Dogfish Head brewery has adopted the spelling for one of its seasonal offerings.

Some research reveals that not only the pronunciation but the spelling has a long and varied history in the United States. Joseph Pickering, an English farmer who toured the U.S. and Canada between 1824 and 1830, reported, “Pumpkins (Americans call them punkins) are very large.” In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain has Jim say, “Ef we hadn’ … ben sich punkin-heads, as de sayin’ is, we’d a seed de raf’.” The Hoosier Poet, James Whitcomb Riley, wrote “When the Frost is on the Punkin” in the 1860s. The Dictionary of American Regional English quotes a study of the dialect of Grant County, Ind., in the 1890s that found that the punkin “pronunciation is so universal that one never hears ‘pumpkin’ without its seeming forced.” In Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, the bumpkin-y American Hannibal Chollop refers to “men beaten into punkin’-sarce.” Speaking of which, in 1926, a writer in American Speech observed that in Maine, “Strangely enough, [bumpkin] is pronounced as it is spelled whereas pumpkin is uniformly spoken ‘punkin.’”

A colorful piece of old-fashioned slang, roughly meaning “great shakes” or “a big deal,” is alternately rendered as “some pumpkins” and “some punkins.” Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon (1913), has the line “Say, friend, you’re some punkins at a hundred yards dash, ain’t you?”

Especially since the second p in the word is rarely if ever said, it’s easy to see how punkin developed. The Oxford English Dictionary says the form “reflect[s] assimilation of the nasal /m/ to /N/ before /k/.”

That leaves open the question of how often — outside of Dunkin’ Donuts commercials and Punkin Chunkin contests — punkin is actually said. When I raised the question on Twitter, Jan Freeman said that when she was growing up in Ohio, pumkin was the more common term, with punkin serving as “a self-conscious joke or an endearment.” That seems right. If I were the sort of a person to address a little baby with the name of a large orange fruit (which I am not), I would probably say punkin, not pumkin.

But that doesn’t excuse the Dunkin’ Donuts ad, which is cutesy and icky and definitely not, in my opinion, some pumpkins.


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