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Why is a pickle called a pickle instead of a pickled cucumber?

Pickles go by many names around the world, but in North America they are overwhelmingly known simply as “pickles.” However, pickles begin their life as cucumbers before undergoing a pickling process to become the sour, brined snack we know. So why don’t we call them “pickled cucumbers” instead of just “pickles”?

The History and Origin of the Word “Pickle”

The word “pickle” traces its origins back hundreds of years before entering the English language. In the 13th century, the Dutch had a word “pekel” which referred to the brine used to preserve foods. The verb “pekelen” meant to preserve or pickle something in brine. This gave rise to the Middle English word “pikel” around the 14th century referring to the brining process. The word “pickle” emerged in English by the 15th century to refer specifically to brined or pickled foods.

So while “pickle” originally referred to the act of preserving with brine, it evolved to refer to the brined and pickled foods themselves. Calling a pickled cucumber a “pickle” became commonplace. The word also gave rise to the phrase “in a pickle”, meaning in a troublesome situation, in reference to the immersion of foods in brine.

Why Cucumbers Became Associated with Pickles

Cucumbers have been favored for pickling for centuries, which led to the vegetable becoming closely associated with pickled foods. There are a few primary reasons why cucumbers became the most common vegetable choice for pickling:

  • Mild flavor – Cucumbers have a mild, clean taste that lends itself well to pickling. Their flavor profile can be transformed with vinegar, spices, and other brining ingredients without overpowering the palate.
  • Crisp texture – Cucumbers maintain a pleasing, crunchy texture when pickled properly. Other vegetables may become mushy.
  • Availability – Cucumbers have been cultivated for thousands of years. Their global availability made them an accessible vegetable for pickling.
  • Moisture content – Cucumbers have high moisture content. This allows them to absorb the pickling brine efficiently.
  • Shape and size – The oblong shape and generally smaller size of cucumbers allowed them to fit neatly into jars and containers for pickling purposes.

While many vegetables can be pickled, the cucumber proved uniquely well-suited thanks to its versatility, texture, and availability. Over time, the pairing of cucumbers with pickling became common knowledge.

The Rise of “Pickles” in North America

Immigrants from Europe brought their pickling traditions to North America starting in the 17th century. Pickling was an important preservation method before refrigeration. The word “pickle” was already in use, and immigrants referred to pickled cucumbers simply as “pickles.”

New York and Chicago emerged as major pickle production centers in the United States by the mid-1800s. German immigrants in particular influenced pickle-making by introducing spices like dill. Dill pickles surged in popularity in America between 1850-1920 during a wave of Eastern European immigration.

By the early 1900s, “pickles” was the established term for pickled cucumbers in North American English. Early pickle brands like Heinz and Vlasic became pickle powerhouses, cementing the “pickle” name in households across the U.S. and Canada.

Table: Timeline of Major Developments in North American Pickle History

Year Event
17th century Pickling traditions brought to North America by European immigrants
Mid 19th century New York and Chicago emerge as major pickle production centers
1850-1920 Wave of Eastern European immigration popularizes dill pickles
Early 1900s “Pickles” becomes established term for pickled cucumbers in North America
Early 1900s Heinz, Vlasic and other major pickle brands emerge

Why Not “Pickled Cucumbers”?

Given that pickles originate from cucumbers, some may wonder why we don’t call them “pickled cucumbers” instead. There are a few reasons why the more general term “pickles” came to dominate North American pickle parlance:

  • Brevity – “Pickles” is simpler and shorter than saying “pickled cucumbers.” In the era before refrigeration, pickled cucumbers were so ubiquitous that the shorthand “pickles” became commonplace.
  • Unnecessary specificity – Since nearly all pickles were made from cucumbers, having to say “pickled cucumbers” was redundant. The vegetable was implied by the term “pickles.”
  • Adaptability – While we associate pickles with cucumbers today, other vegetables can also be pickled. Calling them solely “pickles” left room for pickling innovations with other produce.
  • Focus on process – The term “pickles” places emphasis on the brining process rather than singling out cucumbers. This reinforces that pickling can transform various foods.

In essence, “pickles” emerged as a catch-all for pickled cucumber products while still allowing for expansion to other pickled vegetables. The North American pickle market was so focused on cucumbers that being more specific with the name was unnecessary when “pickles” sufficed.

Types of Pickles in North America

While cucumber pickles dominate the North American market, other common pickle types include:

Type Description
Dill pickles Cucumbers pickled in brine with dill flavoring
Bread and butter pickles Sweetened cucumber pickles in spiced syrup
Kosher dill pickles Dill pickles made following traditional Jewish kosher practices
Pickle relish Chopped pickled cucumber in a vinegar mixture
Sauerkraut Pickled cabbage
Kimchi Korean pickled spicy cabbage
Pickled onions Onions pickled in vinegar brine
Pickled beets Beets pickled in vinegar, sugar and spices

The term “pickles” encompasses all of these while still typically implying pickled cucumbers in everyday North American usage.

Pickles in Other Regions

While North Americans default to “pickles” for pickled cucumbers, other regions have different naming conventions:

  • In Britain, pickled cucumbers are usually called “gherkins.” “Pickle” can refer to a wider range of pickled foods.
  • In Australia, the term “pickles” also has a broader meaning, while pickled cucumbers are often called “cucumber pickles.”
  • In India, pickled cucumbers are usually called “achar.” “Pickles” refers to Indian pickled fruits and vegetables like mango, lemon, and lime.
  • In Germany, pickled cucumbers are called “salzgurken” – literally “salt cucumbers.”

So the shorthand “pickles” for pickled cucumbers seems to have taken strongest hold in North American English vernacular.


The term “pickle” originated from the brining process but came to refer to pickled cucumbers in particular over time. Cucumbers became the vegetable of choice for pickling thanks to their versatility, texture, and availability. In North America, calling pickled cucumbers “pickles” became the norm by virtue of cucumber’s popularity and the unnecessary nature of saying “pickled cucumbers.” While other pickled vegetables exist, “pickles” remains synonymous with pickled cucumbers in everyday North American usage.

So in summary, we call pickled cucumbers “pickles” because:

  • Cucumbers have been the most popular and ideal vegetable for pickling for centuries
  • “Pickles” arose as a shorthand way to refer to pickled cucumber products
  • The term caught on through common usage over time, especially in North America
  • Other vegetable pickles emerged later but “pickles” remained tied to cucumbers

Next time you bite into a crunchy, tart pickle, you can reflect on the linguistic history that made “pickle” the standard North American name for the brined and transformed cucumber treat.