By JEFF PICKELL
What’s in a name? My first name, Jeffrey, supposedly means “Lamb of God” or “God’s Peace” according to coffee mugs I’ve seen in novelty stores. My last name, Pickell, though it looks like a derivation of “Pickle” is actually “Pickel” with another “L” tacked on.
I found out about this while researching my family tree during sophomore year of high school. Telling my friend at the time, Matt “King Kong” Kowell, about it, I elicited a laugh from his girlfriend. Her name was Heinrike or some such nonsense; we all called her Hank. She was a German exchange student who enjoyed bad techno music and long hours of making out with Matt in the hall by the math room.
“Yes, yes, I know,” I said to Hank. “My name sounds and looks like ‘pickle.’ You aren’t the first person to notice that. You aren’t even among the first thousand to notice that.”
“No,” she laughed. “It is a, how do you say, on the face?” She touched her cheek.
“A cheek?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“No, it is a pickel,” she said. “Like a pimple.”
“Pickel means pimple?” I said.
“Yes. It is ze German word for it,” she said.
Resorting to my normal defense for whenever she made a fool of me, I told Hank that Germans couldn’t be trusted in 1939, and they can’t be trusted today. So I went to the only resource that can be trusted—the internet, which has never, ever misinformed anybody.
Sure enough, Hank had me licked. I found a German to English dictionary on the Institut fur Grundlagen der Elektrotechnik und Elektronik’s website that listed “pickel” as a German equivalent for “acne,” “blackhead,” “pimple,” “pimpled,” “pimply,” “pustule” and “zit.” Ironically enough, “pickel” also means “pick,” but not “pick” as in “to squeeze a zit until it’s big and red and pus explodes out of it onto the mirror,” rather, “pick” as in “ice pick” or “pickaxe,” which I could run with.
But when I tried to reinvent myself as Jeff “The Pickaxe” Pickell, my “friends” weren’t having it, and jeered me to the point that I longed for the days when everyone just called me Pickle.
When I confronted my Dad about the crummy last name he’d given me, he said that “pickel” originally meant “spear” and that our ancestors must have been spear makers. I found this hard to swallow, since the German word for spear, “speer,” is suspiciously close to its English brother. However, an article in Wikipedia about pickelhaubes, the spiked helmets German soldiers wore in the 19th century, says “pickel” literally translates as “point.” Maybe there’s some truth to Dad’s conviction after all.
What I do know about my ancestors is limited. Our most comprehensive family tree stretches back to the first Pickell, or Pickel, in America, Jacob Pickel, who came over from Germany in the mid-1600s. For the next hundred years or so, the family ran a profitable trading business on the Hudson. Right around the onset of the Revolutionary War, they relocated to southern Canada—rumor has it we Pickells were notorious Tories. In fact, my Dad maintains it was one of our esteemed relatives who convinced Benedict Arnold to turn coat.
From there, the Pickels made money and stayed rich. Fur coat rich, it seems, because I’ve seen a picture from the turn of the 20th century of my great-great-grandfather, Sardinia Pickell (it was he who added that second “L”), and his brothers decked out in them.
The Pickells were so rich, in fact, that by the time 1941 rolled around, my great-grandfather, John Pickell I, had come into possession of a castle on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, which was replete with a third floor ballroom and everything.
I mention the ballroom only because a Canadian grifter convinced my great-grandfather to store a boatload of oriental rugs in it. The rugs were, unbeknownst to my great-grandfather, stolen from a port in the Mediterranean, which made for a bit of a scandal when the Mounties came around.
Everything worked out in the end, though, and as far as I can tell, that’s as close as any one of us Pickells ever came to big trouble.
Which is why, when I think about, the title “pimple,” fits us well. That is, we may be society’s blemishes—scoundrels, two-bit crooks, liars and swindlers—but we aren’t its tumors. At least not yet.- Dec. 27, 2005