As millions of Americans will be counting their blessings and gathering with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, I thought it would be fun to investigate the origins of several words commonly associated with the holiday. Please enjoy this post first published on Thanksgiving Day two years ago.
Thank comes from the Old English word thanc, which is derived from the prehistoric Germanic thangk, with a root idea of thoughtfulness. The English word think comes from the same root. It’s easy to see how our word for expressing gratitude originated from the concept of thinking or giving thoughtful consideration. A twelfth-century translation of Matthew 15:19 reads, “From the heart come evil thanks.” By the early sixteenth century the same verse was rendered, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts” (KJV). To give thanks is to think about and express one’s gratitude for something. And what better way to say “thank you” than by enjoying a big feast.
While we usually think of a feast as “an elaborate and usually abundant meal often accompanied by a ceremony or entertainment” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.), the word originated in the Latin festus, which meant “joyful” or “merry,” and our words festival and festivity are derived from it. In the early church, Christmas (or the Feast of the Nativity) and Easter were just two of the festivals observed by Christians—occasions of joyful celebration that included abundant eating—usually after a time of fasting and solemn reflection. Over time, abundant meals themselves, for whatever occasion, became simply feasts. On a side note, Christmas is a “fixed feast,” always celebrated here in the West on December 25th; Easter is a “moveable feast,” meaning its date varies. It is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the beginning of spring. Thanksgiving Day, then, is sort of a “fixed-moveable” feast as it is celebrated in America on the fourth Thursday of November, but the calendar date varies from November 22 to November 28. In Canada, it is the second Monday in October. What Thanksgiving feast would be complete without turkey?
Did you ever associate the name of the large fowl with the country of Turkey? If so, you were probably right. Originally, turkey referred to the “guinea-fowl,” a bird imported to Europe by the Portuguese from Africa by way of the Turkish territory. The British called the bird a “turkey.” It is said that when the big American bird we now know as the turkey was introduced in the 16th century to the British, it reminded them of their turkey, the guinea-fowl, so they began to call the larger American bird by the same name. (Are you following?) Therefore, yes: there is a loose connection between the country of Turkey and the large bird consumed by the millions on Thanksgiving Day. And how many bazillion potatoes are consumed on Thanksgiving?
Potato. In English, the first potato was the sweet potato. Shakespeare, in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1598), had Falstaff say, “Let the sky rain potatoes!” He was referring to sweet potatoes, which supposedly had aphrodisiac properties. At the end of the sixteenth century, the word potato first came into use for the vegetable we now know by that name. The word was derived from the Spanish patata—from the Taino language (Caribbean region) word batata—for sweet potato. So enjoy whichever type of potato you choose on Thanksgiving, but don’t forget the pumpkin pie for dessert.
What do pumpkins and pom-poms have in common? Etymologically, the round, brightly colored ball-shaped thing we call a pom-pom and the pumpkin can be traced back to the French pompon, which resulted from the Greek pepon: a type of melon that was not eaten until it was fully ripe. So the big, round, ripe Greek pepon became the French pompon, which became the English pompion in the sixteenth century, and eventually the -ion ending became -kin (pompkin), and then finally pumpkin. Enjoy your pie.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Remember to think about and thank the One to whom the pilgrims gave thanks four centuries ago. We all have many blessings to count.
John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2009).
© 2013, 2016, 2018 by Dean Christensen. All rights reserved.