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Drinking vessels: ‘bumper’

By Anatoly Liberman


Some time ago, I devoted three posts to alcoholic beverages: ale, beer, and mead. It has occurred to me that, since I have served drinks, I should also take care of wine glasses. Bumper is an ideal choice for the beginning of this series because of its reference to a large glass full to overflowing. It is a late word, as words go: no citation in the OED predates 1677. If I am not mistaken, the first lexicographer to include it in his dictionary was Samuel Johnson (1755). For a long time bumper may have been little or not at all known in polite society. Even Nathan Bailey (1721 and 1730) missed it. But once it surfaced in dictionaries, guesswork about its origin began.

Johnson derived bumper from bum “being prominent.” Etymology was not his forte (to put it mildly), and the source of the consonant p hardly bothered him. Of the revisions of Johnson’s work especially serious was the one by the Reverend H. J. Todd (1827). Although later scholars derided Todd’s etymologies, his explanations were not always useless, despite the fact that he had no notion of the progress historical linguistics had made by 1827. Be that as it may, to discover the origin of seventeenth-century English slang (and I assume bumper was slang), one can dispense with the facts of Indo-European and even of Old English. Todd called Johnson’s conjecture far-fetched, offered none of his own, and only said that others had traced bumper to bumbard ~ bombard. It is most irritating that he did not indicate who the “others” were. I have been unable to find his authority and will be very pleased if someone enlightens me on this point.

Bombard, a word known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, meant “cannon” and (on account of its size or form?) “leather jug or bottle for liquor.” For a long time Skeat had sufficient trust in this etymology. Bumper, he said, appeared in English just as the older bombard, a drinking vessel, disappeared and was “a corruption of it.” This hypothesis fails to convince. A jug or a bottle for liquor is not a glass, and it remains unclear why a word, evidently in common use, should have been “corrupted.” Nevertheless, the bombard-bumper etymology appeared in numerous good dictionaries, though, surprisingly, Skeat’s early competitors Eduard Mueller and Hensleigh Wedgwood passed by the word.

Then there were attempts to present bumper as a disguised compound. Such an idea should not be dismissed out of hand. For example, bridal, now understood as an adjective, derives from Old Engl. bryd “bride” and ealu “ale” and meant “ale drinking at a wedding feast.” The indefatigable Charles Mackay, who traced hundreds of English words to Irish Gaelic, explained bumper as the sum of bun “bottom” and barr “top”: bum-barr or bun-parr “full from the bottom to the top.” A somewhat more reasonable theory looked upon bumper as a borrowing from French and decomposed it into bon “good” and père or Père “father.” A typical statement ran as follows: “When the English were good Catholics, they usually drank the Pope’s health in a full glass after dinner—Au bon Père—whence your bumper.” Perhaps this derivation was first offered in Joseph Spence’s posthumous (1820) Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men…, an amusing and entertaining book. Spence had no idea when bumper surfaced in English and did not doubt that at the time of the word’s appearance the English were still good Catholics. Nor did he provide any evidence that the rite he mentioned ever existed. (Those with a taste for such reading will also enjoy Samuel Pegge’s Anecdotes of the English Language…, 1844.)

This is a country bumpkin. Bumpkin and bumper are not related.
Soon after the publication of Spence’s Anecdotes Alexander Henderson brought out a volume titled The History of Ancient and Modern Wines (1824), a learned and eminently readable piece of scholarship. Like many of his contemporaries, he occasionally dabbled in etymology. According to him, bumper was “a slight corruption of the old French phrase bon per, signifying a boon companion.” Granted, French pair “one’s equal, peer”  had the form per in Old French, but where did Henderson find the collocation bon per “boon companion”? This is the problem with both Mackay and the adherents of the French theory. The etymons they posed do not and did not exist in the alleged lending languages, so that, following their logic, the phrases had to be coined in English from two foreign elements, change their shape, merge, and become opaque simplexes. This chain of events defies belief.

Not unexpectedly, some people thought they had found a tie between bumper and bump up, a rather rare collocation meaning “swell up.” The glass was said to be filled so as to cause the liquid to “bump up” slightly above the rim. Several variations on the bump up theme exist. At this point I need a short digression. Some etymological dictionaries have been written by monomaniacs, as Ernest Weekley called them. They derived all the words of English from several ancient roots or from a few primordial cries, or from one language (Irish Gaelic, Arabic, Hebrew, etc.). Criticizing their labors is a thankless task. By contrast, the authors of some dictionaries were so misguided, even if learned, that one wonders how they managed to produce their monstrosities. One such monster is Words: Their History and Derivation, Alphabetically Arranged by Dr. F. Ebener and E.M. Greenway, Jr. (Baltimore and London, 1871). Greenway was, apparently, the translator of this hapless work from German, while Ebener may have been a medical doctor. Among the physicians of the past one can find several crazy etymologists. The dictionary caused such an outcry that its publication was discontinued after the letter B. But my experience has taught me to consult all sources, because a heap of muck sometimes contains a grain of precious metal. (Consider also the dust heaps immortalized in Our Mutual Friend.) This is what I found in the short entry Bumper: “After Grimm [sic], a full glass which in toasting is knocked on the table or against another bumper. He compares [sic] with bomber-nickel.” (It is so easy to translate this text back into German!)

What is a bomber-nickel? And where did Grimm (I assume, Jacob Grimm) say it? His multivolume Deutsche Grammatik has a word index, compiled by Karl Gustav Andresen and published in 1865, but bumper is not in it. Once again I am turning to the assistance of our correspondents. Perhaps they will be able to find the relevant place in Jacob Grimm’s other books or Kleinere Schriften. I cannot imagine that Ebener made up the reference. The OED suggested cautiously that bumper is connected with bumping and its synonym thumping “very large.” Quite possibly, that’s all there is to it. Yet a link seems to be missing, namely some reference to drinking.

The short-lived adjective bumpsy (bumpsie) “drunk,” with an obscure suffix seemingly borrowed from tipsy, has often been cited by those who looked for the origin of bumper. I wonder whether bump up at one time also meant “guzzle” or that the noun bumper “drunkard” existed in colloquial use. Bumper “full glass” may, as suggested above, have been avoided by Samuel Johnson’s closest predecessors because it was current only as occasional slang, even though Johnson did not call the word low (an epithet of which he was fond). Bumper “full glass,” coexisting with bumper “drunkard,” is possible. For instance, a reader is someone who reads and a book for reading. Also, bump “drink heavily,” a homonym of bump “strike” and bump “bulge out, protrude,” may have had some currency as an expressive doublet of the little-known verb bum “consume alcohol.” Verbs ending in -mp (jump, thump, slump, dump, and of course bump) are invariably expressive. I wish it were possible to show that slum, a word of undiscovered origin, is in some way connected with slump!

The etymology of bumper is simple (not a “corruption” or a disguised compound), but, unfortunately, some details have been lost along the way. Let us not des-pair. Good wine needs no bush, so au bon père!

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Themas 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 blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Image credit: A portrait of a man aiming a shotgun. Critical focus on tip of gun. Isolated on white. Photo by steele2123, iStockphoto.

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Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Perhaps the source for the claim that bumper “may be a corruption of bumbard, or bombard”:
    Paul Gemsege, Gentleman’s Magazine, June, 1759. Here’s a reprint:
    http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark%3A%2F13960%2Ft82j6bg57;view=1up;seq=236;q1=bumbard;start=1;size=10;page=search;num=216

  2. Stephen Goranson

    The OED quotes the same article mentioned above for sense 2 (Anything unusually large or abundant)of bumper noun 1:
    1759 Gentleman’s Mag. XXIX. 271/2 In some of the midland counties, anything large is called a bumper, as a large apple or pear.

  3. mollymooly

    Bomber-nickel is pumpernickel, wherein pumpern is “break wind”.

    When toasting, do you bump your bumper against your neighbour’s bumper?

  4. [...] Bumper. I was unable to find an image of the label used on the bottles of brazen-face beer. My question to someone who has seen the label: “Was there a picture of a saucy mug on it?” (The pun on mug is unintentional.) I am also grateful for the reference to the Gentleman’s Magazine. My database contains several hundred citations from that periodical, but not the one to which Stephen Goranson, a much better sleuth that I am, pointed. This publication was so useful for my etymological bibliography that I asked an extremely careful volunteer to look through the entire set of Lady’s Magazine and of about a dozen other magazines with the word lady in the title. They were a great disappointment: only fashion, cooking, knitting, and all kinds of household work. Women did write letters about words to Notes and Queries, obviously a much more prestigious outlet. However, we picked up a few crumbs even from those sources. The word bomber-nickel puzzled me. I immediately thought of pumpernickel but could not find any connection between the bread and the vessel discussed in the entry I cited. I still see no connection. As for pumpernickel, I am well aware of its origin and discussed it in detail in the entry pimp in my dictionary (pimp, pump, pomp-, pumper-, pamper, and so forth). [...]

  5. [...] I am ready to go on with my series “Drinking Vessels.” Now that we have dispensed with bumper, the turn of tankard has come [...]

  6. [...] more drinking vessel, and I’ll stop. Strangely, here we have another synonym for bumper, and it is again an old word of unknown origin. In English, goblet turned up in the fourteenth [...]

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