Ask Artie #5 – The Etymology of Pep

Artie Q. PebbletonAsk Artie, History!, Linguistics!

My friend Ian sent me this Wondermark comic, which is written by the estimable David Malki !* :

Ian wanted to know what the real etymologies of pepper and pep were, and I am happy to oblige him.

Obviously (see last panel) none of the information in this comic strip is true.  But that’s okay!  That’s why I’m here.

This is a chicken-and-egg question: which came first, pepper or pep?   And there’s a second question, too – are they actually related to each other?  And we’ll get to that later.

So I did a little research.  Pepper comes first.  It is an ancient, ancient word that is first attested in Sanskrit as pippali, then in Latin (where we get it) as piper.  It is present in English as early as the 9th century C.E. (so, like, a thousand years ago, ish), where it appears in Bald’s Leechbook, which is a magnificent old physician’s text that reads like a wizard’s recipe book.  The OED attests it in the Leechbook as: “Meng pipor wiþ hwit cwudu,” which roughly means, ” Mix pepper with white gum arabic.”  Why you would do this is beyond me, but maybe they were into pepper-flavored chewing gum back there.  I wonder what it cured!  The book recommends making a potion of fifteen different tree barks to cure shingles, and that’s basically a super-complicated root or birch beer.  I’d drink it.

And for clarity, we’re talking about piper nigrum, the black peppercorn native to India, not chili peppers, which are in no way related except that they’re spicy.  You can thank Christopher Columbus for that confusion.  Thanks, guy.

So that’s where the noun pepper comes from.  It’s super old, and its first appearance in English dates to around the time when the Vikings were using the English countryside as a punching bag – well before Great Britain was a single political unit (and therefore well before the 17th century).  The first use of pepper as a verb, as in to pepper or to add pepper to, also dates from the Old English period.  People (that is to say, kings and noblemen) had access to pepper.  It was exceedingly hard to come by, and that made it super expensive, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have any at all.  There was trade with the places that grew spices, though certainly not to the extent that global trade exists today.  Pretty much the reason the Europeans explored the New World was to find a shorter route to the places where pepper and cinnamon and cloves came from, because that stuff was worth its weight in gold, if not more.

Pep, on the other hand, meaning verve or high spirits, is an Americanism that dates to about 1908.  So, that’s the first question answered.  Pepper, as the noun and the verb, precedes pep in the historical record. Now, onto the second question: are they related?

The short answer: probably.  In fact, almost certainly.  The OED says that pep is most likely derived from pepper, because it’s spicy and it wakes you up.  Pep rally dates to about 1915, when it was used a little bit cautiously by the folks at the Daily Review of Decatur, Illinois: “A ‘pep’ rally for the debate will be held in the chapel by the J.M.U. students on Thursday or Friday morning.”  (What the kids from James Madison University, which is in Virginia, were doing in Decatur, Illinois in 1915 is a bit beyond my pay-grade, thank you much.  Maybe J.M.U. stands for something else, but Decatur, IL is where Millikin University is.  Maybe it was a traveling debate team.  Imagine!  A pep rally for the debate team; that’s awesome.)

However, H.L. Mencken, that scurvy and dogged chronicler of what he called “The American Language“, postulated that the word pep maybe came from pepsin (first English use 1844), which is a digestive enzyme.  For the record, pepsin comes from the Greek pepsis, which means digestion – thus indigestion is sometimes called dyspepsia (or bad digestion), and the pink, chalky, stomach-calming substance called bismuth subsalicylate is known by a better name – Pepto-Bismol (bismuth stuff for digestion, basically).  Pepsin was used as a food additive to aid digestion (perhaps you’ve heard of Pepsi-Cola?), and so the idea of adding a touch of pepsin to stabilize the guts was certainly present by 1915.  Was this meaning used as a metaphor for excitement and vigor?  I guess it’s possible.  But it makes more sense to me that a person might equate the feeling of excitement with the sharp, pungent taste of pepper, rather than the soothing, stomach-calming taste of an indigestion medicine.

There you have it, Ian!  I’d like to thank the Oxford English Dictionary and H.L. Mencken, as well as David Malki !.  They are all fabulous things, people, and people, respectively.

Yours in learning,

– Artie

(And now, a FOOTNOTE!)

* Malki ! spells his name with an exclamation point, and you don’t have to pronounce it when you say it.  He’s also separated it from the rest of his last name with a single space, because “it’s considered an honorific, and used in the same manner as ‘Jr.’ or ‘PhD’.”

Why would you pronounce an exclamation point?, you’re probably asking.  There are a couple of languages, like Xhosa and Zulu in South Africa, that have what we call click consonants, and we use the exclamation point to represent one of them.  Here is a song by the late and legendary Miriam Makeba, a South African vocalist and civil rights activist who died in 2008.  It’s a Xhosa song, and the Xhosa use the letter q to represent the click consonant ! .

Of course, this is all a roundabout way to say that David Malki ! doesn’t want you to pronounce the ! in his name.  Like the dude with the monocle, Mr. M ! is just using his knowledge of language to play games with you.