A recent entry from Pepys Diary ended with this sentence: “This day Sir W. Batten tells me that Mr. Newburne (of whom the nick-word came up among us for “Arise Tom Newburne”) is dead of eating Cowcoumbers, of which the other day, I heard another, I think Sir Nich. Crisps son.” The poisonous nature of cucumbers was new to me (and to think my wife has been feeding them to me for years!), but so was the spelling cowcoumbers. Checking with the OED, I found the following etymology:
[In Wyclif's form cucumer, app. directly from L.; in cocomber, cucumber, etc., a. obs. F.cocombre (in 13th c. coucombre, now concombre) = Pr. cogombre, It. cocomero, early ad. L. cucumer-em (nom. cucumis) cucumber.
The spelling cowcumber prevailed in the 17th and beg. of 18th c.; its associated pronunciation ('kaʊkʌmbə(r)) was still that recognized by Walker; but Smart 1836 says ‘no well-taught person, except of the old school, now says cow-cumber.. although any other pronunciation.. would have been pedantic some thirty years ago’.]
This kind of change in linguistic fashion is fascinating: who started saying K(Y)OO- instead of COW-, and why, and why did it catch on so quickly and universally? Surely not anti-cow prejudice?