Pumpkins, along with squashes and ornamental gourds, belong to the genus Cucurbita (sometimes called "the cucurbits" in English). Interestingly, although Cucurbita is a Latin (the language of the Romans) word for "gourd," the Romans, themselves did not know about pumpkins, squashes and ornamental gourds. That's because the cucurbits are native to the New World.
Perhaps you're wondering, "If the Romans didn't know about the cucurbits, then how come they had a word for gourds?" Well, in the Byzantine manner so characteristic of etymology, it turns out that when the Romans referred to gourds, they were referring to a type altogether different from our ornamental gourds: namely, the Lagenaria, or hard-shell gourds. So while botanists borrowed the word Cucurbita from the Romans, they use it in a different way. Confusing, I know; but hey, I'm not responsible for this stuff, I just explain it!
Like us, the Romans made the connection between the rounded shape of gourds and the human head -- and exploited the similarity for purposes of humor and put-downs. Thus, as a parallel to the modern phrase "out of our gourds" (i.e., crazy), the Latin cucurbita also meant "idiot."
But back to pumpkins, specifically.... Although the first jack-o'-lanterns were carved out of turnips (in Ireland), not pumpkins, jack-o'-lantern carvings are now inextricably linked with our cheerful orange cucurbits. Of course, there are other uses for pumpkins, including culinary uses such as making pumpkin pie. But some pumpkins are better for carving, while other types make better pies. Marie Iannotti, About.com Gardening Guide, helps you distinguish between the two in this article on carving pumpkins and cooking pumpkins.
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Photo ©2007 David Beaulieu (licensed to About, Inc.)