J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Colonial Boston Vocabulary: "pompions"

Yesterday I published a paragraph from one of merchant John Andrews’s delightfully gossipy letters about life in Boston during the British military occupation of 1774-76. Here's another extract with a curious vocabulary word, written on 4 Oct 1774.

At the time, the British military forces in Boston were on fairly high alert, fearing an attack by provincials. On 3 October, the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company held one of its regular drills. Since the local men couldn’t exercise on the Common because His Majesty’s 4th Regiment of Foot was encamped there, they headed for Copp’s Hill in the North End—which brought them close to a warship in the mouth of the Charles River.

Andrews tells the tale:

Yesterday afternoon our honorable and ancient artillery turned out, and for want of a better place, they march’d down to Cop’s hill, where they went through their several manoeuvres to the satisfaction of every one, and really made a much more respectable appearance than they formerly us’d to.

Their fifes and drums, when near the hill, alarmed the [Royal Navy ship] Lively, which lays near the ferry; and when they had got upon the hill, in sight of the ship, the Boatswain’s whistle call’d all hands upon deck, the marines with their firelocks were fix’d upon the quarters. . . .

Such was the terror they [the naval officers] were in, from the appearance of about fifty pompions in arms. At about five o’clock they remarched into King street, where they perform’d their evolutions with the greatest propriety and exactness.
“Pompions” was a synonym for “pumpkins.” It was also slang for “fat men”; in The Merry Wives of Windsor someone calls Falstaff a “Pompion.” The Oxford English Dictionary says the term is now obsolete, alas.

In 1774 the Ancient & Honorable Artillery Company was no longer an artillery company. Rather, it was a private militia organization that officers and would-be officers from the county’s official militia joined in order to practice and improve their drill. The company’s upper-class leadership was politically split, so it went into abeyance during the Revolution. In 1786, a group that included William Dawes revived the company, and it continues to occupy the top floor of Faneuil Hall today.


Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading your vocabulary posts. It's interesting that 'pompion' had such a long usage--the settlers at Plimoth Plantation used it and must have brought it from England. I agree--it's a deliciously descriptive word--too bad it has fallen out of use. KLR

Matt said...

I just discovered your blog and I've already read several few of the archived posts. I'm afraid that I'll spend too much time here catching up when I should be doing something else.

I truly enjoy history, but don't find much of a reason or opportunity to study it unless I'm reading a historical book. Thanks for providing this corner of the internet.

These vocabulary posts are especially fascinating. It is too bad that some of these words cannot come back, they seem far more interesting than words common today.