My latest column in the Malaysia Star, written for a foreign audience seeking to improve its English.
In Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, a play about show business, one of the main characters tells another that certain words are funny all by themselves. “Words with ‘K’ in it are funny. You didn’t know that, did you? If it doesn’t have a ‘K’, it’s not funny.”
He adds, “Pickle is funny.”
Oh, yes, pickle is indeed automatically a funny word in English.
In North America, we almost always use pickle to mean a pickled cucumber. We use pickled as an adjective for anything else that’s been soaked in a flavourful seasoned brine, as in pickled tomatoes or pickled peppers.
North Americans also use pickle as a countable noun: There are three pickles left, meaning, “There are three pickled cucumbers left.” In Britain, pickle alone is an uncountable noun: Do you want some pickle on your fish? They are referring to what North Americans would call a pickle relish, a condiment of chopped vegetables soaked in vinegar and spices.
But there’s more to pickles than eating. As the playwright says, all sorts of unaccounted baggage travels along with a word, such as which words make us giggle and why. What kind of baggage makes pickle unserious?
Partly, when we think of the pickled cucumbers, perhaps we then think of other things similar to pickles and before we know it, we’re blushing. We snicker over pickle because its shape is suggestive of a certain male organ.
Hence, pickle is often used to mean “penis”, as it is in the Hollywood expression pickle shot, meaning a movie scene where a man’s genitals can be seen, and in pickle park, a public but secluded area (like a park) where men meet each other for secret sexual encounters.
Partly, too, we chuckle because as Simon wrote, “pickle” has funny sounds in it. A plosive P (a fast lip-popping noise) and a hard ck. Pickle! You almost want to shout it.
Pickles are common features in my son’s boardbooks (small, short children’s books with very thick pages that are hard to bend or tear) because authors know children know that pickle is fun to say.
Maybe we also giggle because we make odd faces when eating sour pickles, which is where we get pickle-puss, someone who has a sour expression. The lips purse (draw together like the opening of a bag fastened with string), the eyebrows scowl, the whole face scrunches up (squeezes together in an irregular way), just as if we have eaten a very sour pickle.
Because of the automatically funny notions about pickle — look, I’m serious, just ask anybody who speaks English for a living and they’ll tell you, pickle is a giggle-maker — the word pops up in all sorts of slangy language.
For example, pickle is used for things (besides male genitals) that are pickle-like. Bombs and torpedoes are long and smooth and round, so soldiers, airmen, and sailors call them pickles.
By extension, to drop bombs or to push the button to drop them is to pickle. Even getting a target in the crosshairs can be to pickle and the switch or lever which fires or drops the weapons (or controls other machinery) is sometimes called the pickle or pickle switch. The switch is sometimes shaped like a pickle.
To be in a pickle is a far more commonly known expression. It means to be in a difficult situation. If you’re locked out of your house at night with no way to get in, you’re in a pickle. If your wife is the person who locked you out of the house because you were having an affair with another woman, then you’re really in a pickle.
More obscurely, to hit a ball hard in baseball is to pickle it. The idea here, supposedly, is that the batter is salting away the ball. Ordinarily, when you salt something away, you store it away for a long time. This is often said of food, since salt has been used since the earliest days of civilisation to keep food from spoiling. Salting something is like pickling it. So, metaphorically speaking, the ball is hit so hard that it won’t be seen for a long, long time, as if it were a fruit that was salted, or pickled, and stored.
Pickle-stabbers is what you might call a woman’s high-heeled shoes, especially those with spindly, sharp heels. They look very much like the kind of utensil needed to successfully stab and retrieve pickles from a jar.
In aviation, to pickle an aircraft is to disassemble it, usually for storage or shipping, and packing all of its parts in oil or grease.
In fact, putting anything in any kind of liquid can be called pickling, including pickling your liver, which means drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time, although to be pickled can simply mean to be thoroughly drunk.
You can also pickle metal, which means immersing it in an acidic solution, usually as part of an industrial process.
In Britain, pickle can be a term of affection: “Come sit by your papa, my little pickle.”
So besides funny or sour, pickle is a little sweet, too.