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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Traditions and Terms of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is loaded with traditions - some of these are familial and some are cultural. And many of the traditions come with terminology unique to the season. Why do we call the big orange squash a "pumpkin" and its placement into a pastry shell a "pie"? Where do the words implying "thanks" originate? In America we have adopted many traditions and terms from other locations; a few are mentioned here.


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November is here and, once again, people are focused on the things for which they are grateful. Some folks do it on Facebook® - each day of the month posting something that has given them feelings of appreciation. Some do it around the dining table on Thanksgiving. Some do it in places of worship. Some do it very privately in their own hearts and minds. It is an interesting tradition for many and it traces back to the earliest days of the colonization of this country, hence it has a special meaning for those with Colonial ancestry. Many of our words and terms, used most frequently during this month, have equally interesting origins. Let us look at some of the traditions and terms of the season.

The word "Thanksgiving" comes from the concept of "giving thanks," of course, but where did the word "thanks" originate? Even at a young age, I probably could have answered that. Both of my grandmothers were fluent in German, as was my father, so it was not unusual to hear the German word danke spoken in my home. Some say the origin is the Old English thancian, which evolved into thanken (dating to 1175), which spawned the words "thank" and "danke" in English and German, respectively. Word derivations - "thankful," "thankless," and "thanks" are just variations on the same root (Barnhart, p. 1130). The Dutch and English influences of the Pilgrims made this a perfect word to coin as the name for the holiday for the new community, formed in 1620-21 (Panati, p.64). Only one little problem: the next (and subsequent) year(s) saw less on the table and more consumers. Thanksgiving, as a recognized event, would not reappear for over 150 years (October 1777) and was not recognized nationally until 1789, courtesy of President George Washington. Still, it was not accepted or celebrated among the argumentative colonists; it lacked the necessary support to become a reality (p. 66).

Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor (creator, writer, and everything else) of the Boston Ladies' Magazine, put on a campaign to promote the last Thursday of November as an annual day of thanks. Her editorials and enthusiastic promotion of this event did not gain recognition until the midst of the Civil War when the Battle of Gettysburg caused many to focus their thoughts on the belief that a Northern victory was possible. Abraham Lincoln took that point in time to make official the proclamation that the last Thursday of November (beginning in 1863) was to be set aside as a national Day of Thanks (Panati, p. 67). This also helped the country (well, those in the North, at least) join together with a common (albeit religious) effort, thus creating some patriotism in the midst of bloodshed (Loewen, p. 87).

Of course, we use many words to express the feelings of thankfulness: "gratitude" and "appreciation" are two which come immediately to my mind. Where did these words originate?

When I think of something or someone "grating on me," it hardly is a cause for feeling "grateful." The words "grateful," "gratitude," "gratify," and "gratis" all come from the Latin grātis, meaning "pleasing." The addition of "-ful" on the end of "grateful" may have originated with the Italian word gradevole, meaning "pleasing." On the other hand, "grate," as in "that behavior grates on me," comes from Old English gratur, Old French grater ("to scratch"), or Old High German chrazzōn (later, modern German kratzen, both meaning "to scratch"). The term was often applied to the action and sound of grinding, as in pulverizing grain to flour (Barnhart, p. 447). So when someone is overly grateful, it might grate on a person (i.e., get on the person's nerves, as constant scratching might).

How about the word "appreciation" and its family members "appreciate," "appreciative," etc.? This one comes from the Latin, appretiāre, meaning to "value," "appraise," or "estimate." (This explains why the same word that means thankful is applied to the adding value to, as in "stocks appreciating.") It seems that, over time, its meaning has been adjusted to mean "enjoy" as well (Barnhart, p.45). But usually, when I invite someone over to appreciate my home, I am not asking for an appraisal.

Some insist that the constant misrepresentation of Thanksgiving and the myth of the Pilgrims, with their black-crowned hats and fancy-belted jackets, befriending the members of the Wampanoag tribe and celebrating the harvest of 1621, is doing a disservice to history. As mentioned, it was a one-time event, here. But the tradition of celebrating the harvest goes back to the Ancient Greeks (Panati, pp. 64-65), and the Native Americans on east coast of America had a long-standing tradition of giving thanks for their harvest bounties (Loewen, p. 87). It is true that there was a lot of sharing of the early White and Native communities: the Indians taught farming techniques to the newcomers; the Europeans shared their diseases; though the latter happened long before the Pilgrims arrived, it also continued for decades after (pp. 72 & 87).

Today we celebrate the holiday with turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Another group of words that bears examining.

Our Thanksgiving dinner would not be complete without the bird: the turkey. We like to think that the bird on our table is much like that of those first settlers around the table in 1621, but this is hardly likely to be the case. While it is true that Governor Bradford sent men out "fowling" (to shoot some birds for the feast), turkeys as we know them did not frequent the territory of Plimouth. It is more likely that the "turkies" they brought to the meal were guinea fowl, as the word "turkey" referred to any featherless-headed bird with a rounded body and white-speckled feathers (Panati, p. 65). This term for "guinea fowl" is likely to have come into being from its travel route: imported from Africa via Turkey. Initially, the larger bird - what we now call "turkey" - was given this same moniker because initially it was thought to have been a variety of the smaller species (Barnhart, p. 1176).

Speaking of birds, when I was a child, my mother used to recite a nursery rhyme to me, a portion of which stated, "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie . . ." An unusual fare for a pie (most of which, according to my little mind, were made with berries; later I was introduced to meat pies, but I doubt I related that recipe to the nursery rhyme; after all, those birds never got cooked since they sang "when the pie was opened"). In looking up the word "pie," I was reminded of this little ditty because, it seems, once upon a long time ago, the bird "magpie" was called "pie." So when one spoke of a "pie," he/she was talking about the bird, and not the neatest of the species, either. It seems that a check of the pie's nest revealed a multitude of odds and ends (the thing was also a thief): the magpie is a collector - strings, pieces of glass, pebbles, whatever could be found worked its way into the nest. Now, take this concept into the kitchen where we find the cook of the house creating a stew with all sorts of odds and ends (from the cold storage and garden, of course) - carrots, beans, bits of meat, scraps of potato, etc. all worked its way into the pot. To hold everything together, one of the cooks decided to encase it in a crust and serve it to the household. Someone noted that the appearance was something like the magpie's nest and, as they say, the rest is history. It dates back to 1303 in recorded history (Garrison, 139-140).

Beginning around Hallowe'en, the pumpkins start appearing. When we have our holiday dinners at this season, pumpkin pie is almost always expected. After finding the origin of "pie," it occurs to me that the pumpkin variety fails to meet the specifications of a conglomeration of "stuff" baked in a pie shell. But I am splitting hairs. After all, just one look inside the pumpkin shell and one is met with a sight of, well, yuck. But why call it a "pumpkin"? Does it have anything to do with the pump that provided water for our summer cottage? Or is it because the shape of the pumpkin appears "pumped up"? None of the above. The pumpkin is in the melon family - a pepon - which means "fruit cooked by the sun." The Middle French ponon, metamorphosing into the English pompion, to which was added the suffix -kin (a diminutive, even though many of these fruits are huge) results in what has been slurred into today's "pumpkin" (Hendrickson, p. 551). So nothing dramatic, not named for a "John Pumpkin," and not based on any historic event, but certainly a part of history on some level. Yes, the Pilgrims did have pumpkins, but the likelihood of them being baked into a pie with cinnamon, nutmeg, and other exotic spices is doubtful. Their pumpkins, and other squash plants, were most likely boiled (Panati, p.65).

The 1621 feast allegedly did include cranberries and it is suggested that the Pilgrims harvested wild cranberries that grew in the region (Panati, p. 66). Cranberries can be found in marshlands; locations frequented by cranes (the birds, not construction equipment). The first recorded use of the word is 1647 and it is suggested that the term relates specifically to the location of its origin, not its shape, flavor, or genus (Hendrickson, p. 175). Others believe it is of Low German origin: the word Kraanbere (Kraan meaning "crane") (Barnhart, p.231) does not discount the idea that the berry's name connects to the growing region, not the bird itself.

So as you enjoy your holiday feast, consider that you are carrying on a tradition that many of your ancestors probably did enjoy, but not necessarily those prior to 1863 (unless they include the ones at the first event - Pilgrims or Native Americans, neither of which called themselves by those names). The true history of the holiday is more colorful and fascinating than the one manufactured for teaching to school children, but the traditions that come out of the history of our ancestors can help us connect to previous generations. And, above all, the concept of giving thanks and expressing appreciation for the many positive things in our lives should never be considered passé. Personally, I am grateful for my ancestors who fought against tremendous odds to come to America and settle the land, making new lives for themselves, resulting in my very existence.


Barnhart, Robert K. (Ed.). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Fascinating Stories of More Than 350 Everyday Words and Phrases. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Hendrickson, Robert. The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, Rev. and Exp. version. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got Wrong. New York: The New Press, 1995.

Panati, Charles. Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Perennial Library, 1989.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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