In some textile circles, people throw around the word “pom-pom” (sometimes without the hyphen, as pom pom, or even pompom), like it means that fluffy ball at the top of a stocking cap. In cheerleading it’s misused to describe the fluffy bundle on the end of short sticks used as a helpful prop in cheers. However, all of those are wrong. Pom-pom is clearly an anglicized, misheard version of the correct word for what is properly called the pompon. Because we think of any “double word” (as we have misheard it) as simply the word used twice, we tend to sling a hyphen in there. You can hear that advanced word-creep show up when the word is shortened to ‘pom,’ as in “pom squad”.
Pompon is of French origin, meaning “ornamental tuft.”*** We, as we are wont to do as English speakers, added the word to our vocabulary because we have a long history of picking up words from other languages. In this case, it helps that we also love French words. Sadly, as time went by, something happened and we muddied it up. The grammarist agrees,* placing the appropriation of the word from the French in the 19th century.
The problem with this word drift is that there is already a word “pom-pom.” It has been in use since at least 1915. A pom-pom is a big gun. A really big gun. It’s the British anti-aircraft QF 2-pounder naval gun “universally known as the pom-pom.“** It’s so big it goes “POM-POM!” when it’s fired. It is NOT the fluffy thing you shake at football games, or that yarn ball that you put on the top of your stocking caps. It tends to shake YOU. Whenever I see the word misspelled, I both giggle and cringe. Mostly I cringe because it’s wrong. One might also use the word “pomade” instead, right?
But Wendy!” I hear you say, “There are tons of cases where a spelling of a word differs by the language in which it is used.” Well, if we could all get behind one spelling, the “English spelling” vs “French Spelling” argument could possibly come into play. Sadly, that is not the case. All 4 spellings are in use at the same time, so it’s pretty clear that this spelling change is because, quite simply, no one bothers to spell it correctly. They are lost in the mire, not knowing that they are not even looking in the right place. It’s pompon. Really.
To be fair, there is lot of potential for some seriously funny Buffy the Vampire/Heroes/Pierrot mash-ups here. I hope someone does one. It would be really delightful way to correct the usage, but I fear no one would get the pun-pun.
These are Pom-poms
These are pompons.
One of the English mispellings.
Another English misspelling
And another mispelling