Everyone who comes of age in an English-speaking cultural milieu knows of the classic tongue-twisting rhyme about Peter Piper and his “peck of pickled peppers.” Those who never looked into the origins of this quirky little bastard of a verbal tease—often mistakenly called a nursery rhyme—are missing out on some harmless fun. So if you’re in the market for some, get a load of this.
Here’s the whole tongue-twister, just to set the stage:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers that Peter Piper picked?
So the first question a harmless fun-seeker would ask is who wrote this?
Patience is a virtue. Before I tell you, you need to know that Peter Piper is based on a real person.
Peter Poivre was a British colonial administrator, missionary, and horticulturalist who loomed over the island of Mauritius in the 1760s. He established a tropical botanical garden in 1768, arguably the first of its kind anywhere. About 37 hectares of it still exists today in northern Mauritius: the Botanical Garden of Pamplemousses. It is the original model for the Singapore Botanical Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that I now enjoy on a regular basis.
Poivre is credited with smuggling clove and nutmeg seeds out of the Spice Islands (the Maluku Islands, also written Moluccas in prior times, in present-day Indonesia, just east of Sulawesi and west of Irian Jaya), then controlled by the Dutch. From there, those seeds and herbarium seedlings ended up in several places within the British Empire of the day, including the Seychelles and here in Singapore, when spices were worth their weight in gold. That is the likeliest answer to the question posed at the end of the rhyme: “Where’s the peck of pickled peppers that Peter Piper picked?” On commercial spice plantations, guarded by British arms and shipped in British vessels to market.
As for the rhyme itself, no one knows who came up with it, so no exact answer to the question posed above exists. But by 1813 the rhyme had made its way into print, in John Harris’s Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation. Harris was obviously interested in promoting fine elocution, not in amusing babies in nurseries, and the publisher who let him get away with that title arguably deserved electrocution. But the book sold well enough, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Whoever made up the rhyme knew Latin. How so? Because Piper is substituted for Poivre, and piper is Latin for pepper. Poivre, of course, is French for pepper. What a nice name for someone who swipes spices from the Dutch, don’t you think? The Dutch for pepper? Peper, of course. Which begs the question: Where did the root for the English word pepper come from?
The best way to hit upon the answer takes us all the way back to King Solomon’s court.
Yes, you heard right: because by roughly the 960s BCE the ancient United Kingdom of Israel had established robust trade ties with India, known as the land of Ophir in the Bible. Evidence for this may be found in the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible itself. From several sources, notably the work of David Shulman, one learns that the books of Kings and Chronicles contain at least four words of Indic/Dravidian/Tamil origins. These include the word for parrot (tukki, from tokai in Tamil, which originally meant the back feathers of a male peacock), and a word for beryl or topaz (tarshish). Tarshish, of course, is the place to which Jonah tries to flee after God tells him to go to Nineveh, and is often presumed by commentators to be Spain; more likely it refers to the west coast of India, probably near Cochin.
One of these Indic-origin words is pippali, likely from the Sanskrit, or pilpil as it travelled west into Aramaic and Hebrew, or pepper as it came down to us in English via piperi in Greek and piper in Latin. But be careful: The kind of pepper these words initially referred to is not the same kind as you probably assume it to be—fear not, however, for elucidation awaits just below.
Now, Rabbinic Judaism doesn’t begin show up for at least 500 years after Solomon, and the Talmud in more or less its current form was roughly 1,500 years in the future during First Temple times. When it does show up, however, the study of it eventually came to embody a word closely derived from pilpil, namely pilpul.
Pilpul is a method of conceptual extrapolation by which a pairing of friends—a havrutah (or havrusah if your pronunciation of Aramaic is Euro-twisted, and havruthah if it’s really excellent)—goes back and forth debating, arguing, sometimes shouting and sometimes cooperating, in the explication of a sentence, phrase, or sometimes a single word in the text of either the Mishnah (the first, older part of the Talmud, written in Hebrew) or the Gemorrah (the second, newer part, written in Aramaic). Usually the effort to understand and interpret references older texts—especially the Torah, but also the Prophets and the Holy Writings—and sometimes texts written even long after the codification of the Talmud. So a havrutah involves a virtual multigenerational conversation embedded in written texts launched by a rapid-fire oral-dialogical exercise.
Now as human cognitive-cultural achievements go, this sort of thing bears interest in its own right, but our more modest quest here is to figure out how this exercise got to be called pilpul—roughly, “peppering.”
A weak consensus exists that the method itself is not that old; most date it back only to the late 15th century in Central Europe, where it is associated with the Maharal of Prague and exegetes such as Yacub Pollak and Shalom Shachna. But however old the method, the inference is obvious as to how the name arose: One shakes pepper onto food in rapid sprays of spice dust; in a similar way, words burst forth from the two sides of a havrutah: They are metaphorically spicy and rapidly strewn. Picture mouths drawn as dueling pepper shakers. That about captures it, save for a tiny bit of promised etymological clean-up.
Our English word “pepper” is very unsatisfactory because it refers to more than one kind of plant. The spice that people in ancient Greece and then Rome cared about from as early as the fifth century BCE came from India, and they cared about it as a medicine as well as a spice. This was the long pepper—piper longum, from the piperaceae family. If you have never been to an Indian or Nepalese market, like the wondrous Tekka market here in Singapore, you’ve probably never seen one. Black pepper—piper nigrum—comes from the same piperaceae family but is native to the aforementioned Maluku (Spice) Islands. (Yet another variety of the piperaceae family is the Java pepper—piper retrofractum—which is native to Java and Bali; the fruit looks like a stubbier version of the long pepper.)
Black pepper arrived in Europe via the caravan trade in about the 12th century, a trade dear to Jewish merchants, who uniquely maintained a presence at several caravan route points, including the nearest-to-retail-market terminus. (Ever wonder why the surname Peretz is relatively common among Russian Jews?) Black pepper eventually displaced the long pepper in European markets because it was much cheaper. Like the Romans before them, Europeans began referring to the useful part of both plants by the same word—piper, pepper, and so on, depending on the vernacular of the time and place.
The popularity of pepper was a factor in motivating the European Age of Discovery; there was lots of money to be made, especially as a new North American market opened up. The history of Southeast Asia in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, certainly including Singapore, is inseparable from the imperial competition among the Portuguese, Dutch, and British to control the spice trade, which by then focused not on the Indian long pepper but on the black pepper (and the “green” and “white” pepper that come from different uses of the same plant), as well as on other spices and on musk, resinous agarwood, and gambier.
Alas, the word “pepper” eventually came to include the fruits from plants that give us hot red and green peppers in a great many varieties, with spice “alarms” measured on the familiar Scoville scale. But the same plant genus also produces sweet peppers—bell peppers, banana peppers, and so on. The thing is, long and black peppers come from a completely different genus of plants than these, which are from the capsicum genus, not the piperaceae genus.
Moreover, capsicum and piperaceae are native to different continents: long and black pepper to Asia, red and green pepper (hot and sweet) to the Americas. The edible parts of the plants are different, too. From long and black peppers we use dried peppercorns, which are a drupe fruit that grow on a vine. The dried fruits are usually ground up but sometimes they are used whole in pickling mixtures and certain recipes. (In Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, an entire green/raw drupe fruit cluster is often used in fish recipes; Cambodia’s unique variety is called kampot.) In red and green capsicum peppers, as we all know, the fresh flesh and the seeds of the fruit, both fresh and dried, are used.
The conflation here is analogous to the confusion between sweet potatoes and yams. Many Americans think these are just two different names for the same thing, and, unfortunately, some people who work in grocery stores are among them. They look similar, but sweet potatoes come from the Old World while yams are native to the Americas. The plants are from different genera and so look very different; moreover, one has an anti-inflammatory effect when eaten, and the other worsens inflammation.
It’s not hard to figure out how the pepper conflation happened. When Europeans set foot in the New World and encountered capsicum, it reminded them of long peppers. Study photos of long peppers and you’ll see that they turn red when ripe and have an elongated spikey shape. Their texture is nothing like a ripe capsicum pepper, but they’re both spicy hot. That, apparently, was enough to do the trick.
It’s a shame we English-speakers have not since come up with more precise language for these different plants. Tamil speakers do it. When they wish to refer to long peppers, they use pippali or pilpili (and some thipili, for reasons not important to us at the moment). Their word for capsicum peppers is milch, and their word for black pepper is milaku, probably after the Maluku Islands where it is native. These folks know their spices, and they know how to use them, as those foreigners who have tried earnestly to eat their way across Little India here soon learn. We now use the word pepper to refer mostly to plant fruits that are not even related botanically to those from which the word pepper originally derived. French speakers, at least, observe the distinction: poivre for piperaceae, poivron for capsicum—which shows that if you really care about food, you find language to express your passion.
Finally on this point, many languages have versions of pilpil or pippali as their word for pepper, including Farsi and Arabic—but there is a twist in Arabic. Arabic lacks the “p” sound, so pilpil got transmuted into filefil, the logic of which is apparent to Hebrew readers, who know that the same alphabet symbol is used to designate an “f” and a “p” sound—the latter with a dot in the center. The same tonal relationship inherent to the shape of the human mouth is illustrated by the spelling of the German word for pepper: pfeffer.
You, of certain experienced palate, can see where this is leading, can’t you? Yes: The origin of the word falafel goes back to pilpil, or pepper. This suggests that the original version of the falafel ball included a whole lot more “shock yo’ mama” added to those ground up chickpeas than it typically does today.
Arabic doesn’t always transmute “p” into “f”; sometimes it transmutes “p” into “b.” That’s why the name for one of the three headwater sources of the Jordan River, which the Romans named after the god Pan (Panias), became Banias to Arabic speakers. And it’s why the Arabic word for an orange, which came from Portugal, is a bortiqal.
No explication of metaphorical uses of the various words for pepper would be complete, or even acceptable, without reference to baseball. (If you’re feeling dizzy about now, just sit down and breathe deeply.)
As all civilized people know, pepper is a name used to describe a practice drill where someone with a bat hits slowly pitched balls back to a group of fielders. The distance between batsman and fielders is only about 8-10 yards, and the right way to perform the drill is as fast as possible. Pepper is designed to tone reflexes in hand-eye coordination. It’s also lots of fun.
Some may try to argue that the word pepper used to describe this baseball prep drill comes originally from pilpul, and that some clever Jewish player—Moe Berg, probably—should be credited for introducing it. This is an example of over-the-top Jewish chauvinism. Moe Berg had better things to do. For a cure, if you feel drawn to such nonsense, read my book Jewcentricity: How the Jews Are Praised, Blamed, and Used to Explain Nearly Everything. It’ll fix your problem.
Since we’re talking baseball, it’s inevitable that we must now move from peppers to pickles. Neither the real Peter Poivre nor the invented Peter Piper knew that a pickle refers to a rundown in baseball, wherein a baserunner is stranded between first and second base, or between second and third base, or between third base and home plate, with barely a prayer of avoiding getting tagged out. Neither Poivre or Piper ever witnessed Leo Durocher using lots of “p” words, which must have included both “pickle and “pepper” at one time or another, to spit tobacco juice on any umpire who ended a pickle by making a call he didn’t like. That’s because baseball had not yet been invented in 1768 or 1813, so not their fault.
How did a baseball rundown come to be called a pickle? Did the use originate in baseball and then flow outward to become a generic term for someone in a dicey situation, or did the general usage come first to be later imported into baseball lingo? The latter.
If one consults the OED and other sources useful for running down (ahem) such puzzles, one learns that the word pickle—meaning a vegetable preserved in a brine concoction of some sort—is quite old. The first known literary use goes back to Le Morte d’Arthur, circa 1440 (published in 1485). By the 16th century examples can be found of reference to “ill pickles.” But two relatively recent uses, as literary history goes, are responsible for the contemporary English usage of pickle to mean a dicey situation: One comes from Shakespeare and the other pertains to the demise of Horatio Nelson.
In The Tempest, from 1610, Shakespeare has Alonso say:
And Trinculo is reeling ripe:
Where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?
How camest thou in this pickle?
And the Bard has Trinculo answer:
I have been in such a pickle since I
Saw you last that, I fear me, will
Never out of my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.
I am open to anyone explaining to me what the deuce “fly-blowing” means, but that’s beside the point. [“Fly-blowing” refers to the infestation of meat or other food by maggots; so he was saying he was pickle-proofed against putrefaction. —ed.] Trinculo’s “I have been in a pickle” is the modern phrase. Here it seems to point to a protracted state of inebriation. But to generalize out of that, even in the early 17th century, to a generically precarious situation did not take a trebuchet scientist.
As for Admiral Nelson, who was killed by a French sniper during the Battle of Trafalgar, the story goes that his body was dumped for purposes of preservation into a barrel of “refined spirits” for transport back to England for proper burial. When the barrel was opened, the cask proved empty, but Nelson’s “pickled” body was preserved well enough for the purpose.
Why was the cask empty? No one fessed up, but the indelicate technique of sailors’ siphoning rum beyond their allotted ration by use of a gimlet was likely to blame. So not only did Nelson being in a pickle come into use, so did the phrase “Nelson’s Blood” as a euphemism for brandy or run. There’s even a pub in London called “Tapping the Admiral,” but never mind.
Now, well you may ask, what is all this language-heavy stuff doing in a magazine about politics? It is doing its job as an introduction to this concluding section. You might want to get yourself a drink before reading on.
Back in the 1980s there loomed a crisis of Social Security insolvency. Jimmy Carter had earlier claimed that his Administration had fixed the problem at least out until 2050. But like a lot of things about the Carter Administration, this turned out to be very wrong. In 1981 a bipartisan fix-’er-upper plan was put together in the House Ways and Means Committee, centered in the subcommittee on Social Security, which was chaired at the time by a Texas Democrat named J.J. Pickle. The subcommittee’s bill was voted down by the full committee, 14-18. So Pickle was, so to speak, in a pickle.
The Reagan Administration decided to create a commission to solve the problem. It opened for business in December 1981 with 15 members, five each appointed by the President, the Senate Majority Leader, and the Speaker of the House (in the flesh, Ronald Reagan, Howard Baker, and Tip O’Neill). On this commission was a crusty Florida Congressman, a liberal Democrat, named Claude Pepper. I’m not making this up. No one could make something like this up and be believed.
To make a long story short—told brilliantly at greater length in TAI by Philip A. Wallach—Pickle and Pepper became the main antagonists in a drawn out process that lasted until April 1983. The result failed to really fix the Social Security problem, but it did put a sturdy Band-Aid on it. After all, if the solution then had been worth all the sturm und drang we wouldn’t be facing the same problem again today—which we are. At the time some members of the press called the Pickle-Pepper set-to “the battle of the condiments.” They made that up, not me.
So we have moved from tongue twister to brain twister. You, dear reader, have been peppered with eclectic shrapnel above and beyond the call of duty. You have been dragged from the 10th century BCE to the day before yesterday. As a shotgun-seat passenger you have sideswiped the Latin, French, German, Russian, Dutch, Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Sanskrit, and Tamil languages. You have been shanghaied into a yeshiva. You have been clobbered by unsought botany lessons. You have been pepper sprayed with a cloud of politics, from early-modern mercantilism to social security reform. And you’re still here!
But what possible use to you is any of this? Well, harmless fun is often useless. Its value, beyond that of a precious distraction thumbing its nose at mortality, is simply that it causes no harm which, given the state of the world, is no small thing when you think about it. You might even crack a quiet, knowing smile the next time you hear the famous rhyme.
That said, here’s a little something that might be of actual use. I like to garden, and in my garden I have always grown a variety of (capsicum) peppers. Sometimes, with a little luck to go with timely rain and good sun, I have harvested more peppers than my extended local family and friends can eat without wastage—many pecks, even a bushel or three. I have often pickled the surplus in gallon-sized glass containers. In other words, I have made pickled peppers.
My pecks may be found not in the Seychelles or Singapore, but in the downstairs “overflow” fridge at Antebedlam, our manor house at Belching Chicken Farms, in Wheaton, Maryland. They are really good. They are at this very moment marinating happily, getting ever better, while we live the year in Singapore.
Recipes for pickle brine are many and varied. I’ll not divulge mine in detail, but I will reveal that black pepper (piperaceaea, piper nigrum) mixed in with red and green peppers (capsicum) is involved. And I can say this: Now that long peppers (piper longum) have passed my palate, the next time I pickle peppers, assuming I get the chance, they will be added, expectantly and proudly, to my recipe.
Peppers can change your life, you know, as they did Peter Poivre’s. Plant a garden. Grow some peppers. Pickle the surplus you don’t eat fresh. Teach others, especially young people, how to plant, nurture, harvest, and pickle. The time you invest in peppers will likely be time you won’t spend staring at screens. On that basis alone your life will improve. It will become delicious.