AskDefine | Define gherkins

Extensive Definition

Gherkin (French cornichon) is a young cucumber (Cucumis sativus), picked when 3 to 8 cm (1 to 3 in) in length and pickled in jars or cans with vinegar (often flavoured with herbs, particularly dill; hence, ‘dill pickle’) or brine to become a pickled cucumber.
The term can also be used to refer to the West Indian Burr Gherkin (Cucumis anguria), a related plant species, originally West African, that was introduced to the West Indies, probably by the Portuguese. This ‘true’ or Burr Gherkin or badunga cannot interbreed with the ‘true’ cucumber (Cucumis sativus), which is the condiment vegetable now generally known as the gherkin or dill pickle. The West Indian Burr Gherkin is edible and may be pickled but must be picked when no longer than 4 cm (1.5 in) long, since it becomes bitter and spiny if allowed to grow larger.


The word is of Persian origin, angārah, passing through Greek and Polish, and entering the English language from early modern Dutch, in which the diminutive gurkkijn or agurkkijn denotes a small cucumber. (The word ‘pickle’ itself is derived from the Dutch pekel, a salt or acid preserving fluid.) The similarly pronounced Swedish word, “gurka”, actually means cucumber, cognate with German “Gurke”.
The fruit itself may have originated in India, but the ‘pickled gherkin’ was known, although not by that name, to the ancient Mesopotamians no later than the 3rd century BC and enjoyed in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The gherkin is mentioned in English in the seventeenth century, although the English diarist Samuel Pepys describes the ‘girkin’ in his entry for 1661-12-01 as ‘a rare thing’. Knowledge of the condiment may have been disseminated throughout Europe from the Middle East in the course of the Jewish Diaspora.
The gherkin may have been introduced to the American public by one Minton Collins of Richmond, Virginia, who was offering it for sale in the Virginia Gazette in 1792, although it might have been known in Colonial times under another name. It was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Pickling of gherkins was at first a domestic activity, but the jar of pickles became a commercial product in France as early as the 1820s. The condiment rapidly became generally popular, although always more so in the USA than among the British, for whom the generic ‘pickle’ remained the small, sweet onion.
The term is sometimes also used by artists to refer to a tool used in drawings using graphite, charcoal and similar mediums. The tool is a tightly wrapped paper strip used to smooth out swatches on the drawing by spreading the medium out with a rubbing action. It is loosely the shape of a gherkin, presumably where the name derives.
Cultivation hints: There are varieties like Calypso and Calypsoplus suitable for cultivation. Usually high density planting in trellies is practised, with determinant (once over harvest or machine harvest) or non-determinant varieties are used with population density of 30,000 to 100,000 plants per hectare.


  • The Swiss Re building at 30 St. Mary Axe in London is also commonly referred to as “The Gherkin” due to its elongated, tapering cylindrical shape.
  • A (formerly) common British slang term for a gherkin is a Wally, supposedly originally a 19th century corruption of “olive” and later applied to other pickles.
  • Sliced gherkins are commonly used in hamburgers in some fast food outlets and traditionally eaten with salt beef in sandwiches to add piquancy.
  • In the insert of the Talking Heads album Naked, the band are laughing at what appears to be a large gherkin encased in glass.


gherkins in German: Gewürzgurke
gherkins in French: Cornichon
gherkins in Dutch: Augurk
gherkins in Polish: Korniszon
gherkins in Russian: Корнишон
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