The name for this vegetable derives from the Latin word cucumer; this spelling is found in some of the earliest appearances of the word in Middle English. Spellings such as cocomber and cucumbre, common in the 16th century, show the influence of the medieval French form cocombre (the ancestor of modern French concombre). In the 17th and 18th centuries, the pronunciation “cow-cumber” became popular, and the word began to be spelled cowcumber accordingly. In the 19th century, this pronunciation fell out fashion and became associated with other non-standard markers, such as aitch-dropping, as evidence of illiteracy, as in Charles Dickens’s portrayal of Mrs Gamp’s speech in Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘In case there should be such a thing as a cowcumber in the ‘ouse, will you be so kind as bring it, for I’m rather partial to ‘em, and they does a world of good in a sick room’.
The view that cucumbers are good for your health dates back to Roman times; according to Pliny, the emperor Tiberius was advised to partake of a daily cucumber by his physicians – apparently a cucumber a day kept the doctor away. But not everyone has been persuaded by the vegetable’s health benefits. Dr Johnson approvingly cited the view of English physicians that ‘a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing’. Samuel Pepys would no doubt have concurred; an entry in his diary for 22 August 1663 records the demise of one Mr Newburne, who apparently died from eating ‘cowcumbers’. Few people today write cowcumber for cucumber; cucumer, however, is a common error, presumably prompted by a tendency to drop the “b” sound in speech. Cookery sites on the internet offer numerous recipes involving cucumers – both the spelling and the dishes would have delighted the emperor Tiberius; Dr Johnson, who used our modern spelling cucumber in his Dictionary (1755), would have disapproved of both.