The Term ‘Puddin’head’

The nickname Puddin’head is a great one, that much is sure. Call anyone a puddin’head and it is immediately clear exactly what you mean. I looked into the history of the phrase, with help from the OED.

It was first used in 1727 satirical pamphlet called “A Learned Dissertation on Dumpling” by an anonymous writer in London. The phrase is “O wou’d to Heav’n this little Attempt of Mine may stir up some Pudding-headed Antiquary to dig his Way through all the mouldy Records of Antiquity, and bring to Light the Noble Actions of Sir John!” I have no idea what this means, but the author uses culinary verbiage to satirize some specific politicians.

The entire pamphlet can be found here:

Herman Melville and Charles Dickens also use the phrase before Twain did. Melvill, in Ch. 108 of “Moby Dick” has a carpetner yelling at his worker, “Look ye, pudding-heads should never grant premises.- How long before the leg is done?” and in one of his letter, Dickens wrote “Surely it is time that the pudding-headed Dolby retired into the native gloom from which he has emerged.”

All of these other authors used the term in a similar fashion. Satire, comedy and ridicule all rolled in to one great nickname.

3 Responses to “The Term ‘Puddin’head’”

  1. Stephen says:

    I loved the sarcasm in the beginning of this blog post and I can’t help but agree with you that this nickname is ambiguous at best. I still don’t actually understand what it means even after seeing all this scholarship you put into this article. I enjoy the way that Twain reasserts Puddin’head Wilson’s nickname throughout the book with the different ways people look at him as questionable idiot. Likeable, but not really altogether in his thinking. I do agree that there seems to be a universal meaning in the name filled with satire, comedy, and ridicule. I guess it fills itself in depending on whomever the name is laid upon.

  2. Richards says:

    Think about how Twain’s satire is as much focussed on the people giving this nickname as on David Wilson himself. Particularly for those of you who have read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you know Twain’s savagery when representing small-town life. Mayberry–or even Edenton–it ain’t, and its inhabitants are always fair game.

  3. kfabie says:

    This is just conjecture on my part, but here’s another approach to pudding-head: In England, pudding is different than we think of it here. It’s more cake-like, firmer than the slimy stuff we’re used to. Many times it is part batter, part fruit (plum pudding). It’s baked in a mold, something like a small bundt pan. The pan with the pudding batter is set in another pan of water and the whole thing put in an oven. The ‘water bath’ prevents a firm crust from forming on the outside, and keeps it from becoming cake. The pudding is removed from the pan and it holds its shape, and looks something like a head. But, of course, it is a head without a brain, sort of soft and jiggly in the middle. That’s the association I make when I read all of these great references David found.