“Jump” and related matters
By Anatoly Liberman
Like the previous post on penguin, this one has been written in response to a question from our correspondent. His surname is Jump, and he has investigated the origin of the homonymous verb quite well. My task consists in adding a few details to what can be found in the Internet and easily available dictionaries.
Of the synonyms or near synonyms leap, spring, hop, bounce, bound, gambol, and jump, the first three go back to Old English. The original meaning of leap was “run,” spring probably traces to “rise,” and hop or its variant must have existed since people began to speak (as explained below). For some mysterious reason, the 16th century felt a strong need for new verbs denoting jumping. The last four items on the list (which includes jump) surfaced in English in the fifteen-hundreds. Bounce developed from bunsen “beat, thump” (no connection with Bunsen of Bunsen lamp fame, for the root of that name is German Bund “union”). Bound came from Old French, where bondir, its etymon, meant “resound” (and only later “rebound”). Gambol, not related to gamble (about which more will be said later), another 16th-century borrowing from French, is in that language a borrowing from Italian (gamba means “leg”: cf. gambit).
Some dictionaries take no risks and call the origin of jump unknown (uncertain), while others say that we are dealing with an expressive word. Two features justify the latter conclusion. First, the consonant j (I mean the sound, not the letter), whether it stands at the beginning or at the end of an English word, often suggests a brusque or involuntary movement, strong emotions, and the like (jig, jog, jinx; budge, nudge, dodge; I have often mentioned this circumstance in the past). Second, jump belongs with bump, dump, thump, and slump, along with jumble, tumble, fumble, and quite a few others, all of which evoke similar associations. Hence the idea that jump either describes the movement it designates “symbolically” (whatever that means) or is even sound-imitative. But this is only half of the story.
Etymology revolves around the questions “Where did the word come from?” and “Why does it mean what it does?” When the word that interests us is very old, stemming from Common Germanic or Indo-European, we accept its antiquity without protest and realize that no one can know for certain what happened thousands of years ago. But a relatively recent product of language creativity, let alone modern slang, is another matter. Did English speakers coin jump in the 16th century? Instinctively we resent the idea that such a thing could happen, even though new words spring up all the time. In our case the problem is specific: verbs sounding like jump and meaning either the same or almost the same (“to leap, spring”) have been attested all over Europe, from Sweden to Italy.
Swedish dialectal gumpe, German dialectal gumpen, and Italian zompare (with several local verbs of the same root recorded in Sardinia and elsewhere) are typical examples. It has therefore been suggested that English borrowed its verb either from the North or from the South. The chance of a 16th-century borrowing from Scandinavian into English is small, especially because, to justify the English form, we would have to reconstruct the replacement of g- with j-. The path from southern French looks more probable. But even so, we are still in the dark about what to do with our verb’s Scandinavian and German kin; incidentally, there also is West Flemish poelomjompen “jump into water with a splash”
Many etymologists derived jump and its siblings from an Indo-European root meaning “to bend.” This is a futile procedure, for nothing testifies to our group’s existence in such hoary antiquity. More interesting are other considerations. In words like jump, some sounds may be “secondary,” that is, initially the verb may have been shorter and had the form gap or gup, or gop, which makes one think of the ubiquitous hop. I call it ubiquitous, because all over the world people shout gop ~ hop when they catch a ball or jump over an obstacle. It seems to be an almost instinctive cry (a truly symbolic sound gesture!). Intrusive m or n appears in many words. To illustrate this phenomenon in Indo-European, it suffices to compare Engl. stand and stood. Jump and hop have been compared several times but without much conviction. Also, m often becomes mp or mb. In English the m ~ mb alteration is especially well-known: compare thumb and German Daumen (the same meaning). That final b, though mute, cannot be dismissed too lightly follows from thimble (originally thimbles were worn on thumbs). Without its -p gum- ~ gam- can be compared with game (German Gamen, Old Icelandic gamna, and Engl. gammon ~ backgammon) “pleasure; entertainment.” Gamble is related to game and seemingly has intrusive b. When jump was coined or borrowed, it may have meant “frolic, play for fun.” As we have seen, the semantic history of jump sometimes begins rather far from the idea of leaping.
The most likely history of jump appears to be as follows. There may have been a popular Latin verb jumpare, which meant “jump” or “to have fun,” or something like it. In the Romance speaking world, for example, in Italian, southern French, and Spanish, j- was retained or replaced with dz- ~ ts. In Germany and Scandinavia, where the influence of medieval French phonetics was all but nonexistent, it produced forms with initial g-, while in English and Flemish, j- stayed unchanged. Indo-European roots, hop, and game are close but irrelevant. Yet the combinations gump-, zump, yump-, and so forth may have existed independently of the reconstructed jumpare. The borrowing of Engl. jump into Romance is improbable.
English also has jump “to agree.” In Taming of the Shrew, we read: “Both our inventions meet and jump in one.” The same usage occurs in Coriolanus and Othello. Dictionaries also give modern examples of jump with, as in: “Your statement doesn’t altogether jump with the facts.” While we stay in the realm of capricious expressive usage, many things are possible, even if unverifiable. For instance, Scots jimp “scarcely; bare sufficiency” may be a variant of jump, just as bilk is supposed to have a “thinned” vowel of balk. (By contrast, jumper is related to jump only by folk etymology: m in it was added under the influence of the verb.) Hardly anyone still remembers that between 1947 and 1949 one could see (in England?) signs warning drivers and pedestrians of traffic jimps. The strange word (jimp) was a blend of Jay Walker and imp. As the Ministry of Transportation stated: “It was coined among many other words by a member of the staff of an advertising agency and selected by us from a long list.” Not a bad coinage, but it died “without issue,” as they say about royalty. I may add that a century before the short-lived jimp came into being an amateur etymologist suggested that the verb jump contained the root imp. Of course it does not, but in a way, that man was vindicated. I have often observed that words affect the objects they designate. In dealing with jimp, I discovered the first (so far) serious blunder in my bibliography. The note on jimp appears in the bibliography under jump (which is not so bad), but the author is called Anonymous, though it was Eric Buyssens. Why anonymous? Obviously, bugs and imps are ubiquitous.
Now the family name Jump, attested at least as early as 1569. Reliable sources either say “of unknown origin” or skip the name altogether. The old guess, repeated by at least one modern author, that Jump goes back to Jump, the name of a village in northern England, strikes me as lacking merit. No evidence points to the hamlet’s old age, and I have not seen any research showing that there is a measurable concentration of people called Jump in that area. Nor have I been able to find any information on the place name Jump. Naturally, I cannot say anything quotable on the problem, but I would like to point out that the name Gombau(l)d spawned many variants, and in Belgium, as well as northern France, Jumberd and Jumpertz have been recorded. Could Engl. Jump be a folk etymological abbreviation of that Romance name (which goes back to a Germanic compound “battle-bold”)? Or is its source a nickname? Skeat would have said: “Very uncertain.”
In this picture you can see the most successful jumper in American literature, the “heroine” of Mark Twain’s first story. It made him famous all over the country.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”