21

The logic of some terms of endearment is fairly clear. Sweetie, honey, cupcake all refer to food treats. However, the use of the term pumpkin as a tenderness seems somewhat counterintuitive. While reasonably tasty and the basis for making some treats (pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie), on its own it is a rather prosaic vegetable. Its appearance is also not obviously in the category of beautiful flora.

Dictionary references are not much help. Only two of the online dictionaries in onelook.com list the affectionate definition. Collins offers, without etymology or example,

often capital (mainly US) a term of endearment

Wiktionary gives one definition as

(US) A term of endearment for someone small and cute.

It cites only to the lyrics of a song by John Prine from 1991, Daddy’s Little Pumpkin.

A search on Google for the term little pumpkin (a search for pumpkin is beyond my patience) shows a fair amount of usage in the later 20th century and the 21st century as an affectionate nickname. One of the earliest, in that period, appears in the 1951 novel by Myron Brinig, The Sadness in Lexington Avenue

Let me hear it. Frieda, my little pumpkin, my little sugarplum

There are few 19th century references using pumpkin, somewhat sweetly, but not quite as an endearment.

In 1867, The Little Corporal, a children’s magazine published a story that included

for Matie was almost as round as a little pumpkin

This appears to be a straightforward description, not very complimentary, about shape.

In Forrest’s Illustrated Juvenile Keepsake,1851 there is reference to another apparently roundish child

If a little pumpkin, like Dumpy Dorcas, had rolled upon the snow, what harm would have come of it?

In The Child’s Friend and Family Magazine from 1858, there is a reference to an American Indian character in a story whose English name appears to be Little Pumpkin.

So, whence the acceptance (by some) of pumpkin as an affectionate reference for the apple of your eye?

  • 2
    I'd wager it originated for children who were round and ruddy, then lost its dependence on physical appearance. Doodlebug is the term of endearment most mysterious to me. – choster Oct 25 '13 at 15:26
  • 2
    An ngram search for "punkin" might be useful here, as it's a long-standing informal variant and likely to be connected with informal uses of the word. – tylerharms Oct 25 '13 at 15:39
  • @tylerharms Interesting idea. Most references so far (I'm up to about 1940) are just dialects, and probably more for punkin pie (and hundreds of references for Riley's When the frost is on the punkin ...). but I did find a dead on use in 1939 in Rawlings Yearling referring to Jody by his grandmother. – bib Oct 25 '13 at 16:15
  • @tylerharms And several more references in the 1940s in stories, but no guide as to how it morphed from a bland rotund vegetable to a dearly beloved. – bib Oct 25 '13 at 16:21
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    The French have mon petit chou ("my little cabbage"), and I can only imagine that the Belgians have the Walloon or Flemish equivalent of "my big Brussels sprout." – Sven Yargs Oct 25 '13 at 17:48
9

Terms of endearment reflect what the user finds desirable, and not everybody shares the (American?) view that sweets are the most pleasant food. The French mon petit chou means literally 'my little cabbage', Russians (sometimes) call each other 'my little wild raspberry', and several pages could be written (by someone with a strong stomach) on German food endearments; e.g. mein Spätzle, the name of a type of pasta, apparently derived from 'wild sparrow'. The prize as far as I know, however, goes to a respondent to a BBC enquiry for endearments:

I am married to a Tibetan lady who calls me nyingdu-la. This translates as "most honoured poison of my heart". Adam Buckley, Hebden Bridge, UK

  • +1, but where did you read that Russians call each other "my little wild raspberry"? I am a native speaker of Russian but I don't recall ever calling someone (or being called) a little wild raspberry. This sound Bill-Bryson-ish, if you know what I mean :) – Armen Ծիրունյան Oct 29 '13 at 18:59
  • 1
    @ArmenԾիրունյան: Actually, from my Russian teacher and my grandmother (both pre-revolutionary aristocrats). – Tim Lymington Oct 29 '13 at 19:24
  • Which exact word were they using? My main question is what's the word for a little wild raspberry. малинка /malinka/? – Armen Ծիրունյան Oct 29 '13 at 19:31
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    @Armen: A few years ago now, but IIRC it was malinkaskaya (sorry, no Cyrillic on this keyboard). But malinka is not uncommon; most famously in the song 'Kalinka', though I admit rhyme may be a reason. – Tim Lymington Oct 29 '13 at 22:32
  • I think Persian “my liver” is a hot challenger for the prize. – Emil Jeřábek supports Monica Sep 8 '16 at 13:43
2

The OED has pumpkin as a term of endearment from 1900 in Dialect Notes:

Pumpkin, a student's best girl.

This is their sense 2c. Sense 2 includes other chiefly North American colloquial and figurative uses, such as 2a) "Applied contemptuously to a person who is stupid, conceited, or self-important, or (occas.) to a stout or portly body" (1680) and 2c) "In predicative use: a person or matter of importance or consequence; an impressive thing. Esp. in some pumpkins" (1845).

-1

Well, don't we all like pumpkins in the fall for decoration, adds some color when the rest of nature has turned dull and brown? Children adore going to the field and choose their favorite, and hold it in their arms proudly, it's almost a little love affair for them. Remember Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin? So perhaps that has something to do with it. You also have sweet pea, love muffin, honeybunch, hmm, seems we relate a lot to foods! And rather than call our sweetie cloud, tree, grass, leaf, stream, river, lake, etc., etc. Things that are truly beautiful to the eye, but we choose food instead, it is interesting to think about.

  • There's the common endearments: "You're so cute/adorable/sweet, I could eat you" and "eye candy". – Mari-Lou A Oct 31 '14 at 14:43

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