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Etymology gleanings for January 2017

One of the queries I received was about the words dimple, dump, dumps, and a few others sounding like them. This is a most confusing group, the main reason being the words’ late attestation (usually Middle and Early Modern English). Where had they been before they came to the surface? Nowhere or just in “oral tradition”? Sometimes an association emerges, but it never goes too far. For instance, not only dumps “depression” has a plural ending. Its synonym doldrums also has it; tantrums often occurs in the plural too. Does this mean that dumps is the plural of dump, with the initial sense “thrown down, being at the bottom”? Such lexicalized plurals are many. Compare color and colors “flag.” Words like digs “living quarters” are also numerous, and animal names like Cuddles and Sniffers (the guinea pigs with which I had the privilege of being acquainted) are known to many of us. Mrs. Skewton’s page (in Dickens’s Dombey and Son) was called Withers. Unlike dumps, the noun dump in the singular, needs no explanation: this is the name of a place where we dump things.

guinea-pig-242520_640 (1)
Cuddles or Sniffers, its main virtue is the grammaticalized plural in its name.

Middle Low [= northern] German dumpeln meant “to dive,” and Modern German Tümpel (also a Low German form, for otherwise it would have begun with pf-) means “pond.” Pond and dive make one think of “deep,” and, beginning with Jacob Grimm (at the latest), it has been customary to compare Engl. dump with deep. To be sure, deep has no m in the middle, but this is not a problem. The old Germanic root of deep was deup-. The vowels in it alternated according to the usual scheme of ablaut: hence Engl. dip (from dupj-) and its German twin taufen, on a different grade of ablaut (taufen now means only “to baptize”). Dump and dumps have the same vowel as dup-, the root of dip. Very many words in the Indo-European languages appear with an intrusive nasal consonant, that is, m or n. From time to time I mention this fact in my essays and always give the same example, because it’s the most transparent one in Modern English: the past of stand is stood. In this verb, the infinitive has a so-called n-infix. Occasionally, our most common borrowings from Latin retain it, but we don’t pay attention: compare convince and conviction. Reconstructing a root with an infix is a trivial procedure. Consequently, deep and dump may be allied (may!). Damp looks like another member of the family, but its belonging with dump has been questioned. We have German Dampf “steam” and Middle High German dimpfen “to give off steam.” Dampness goes well with steam and vapor rather than depths and dumping. Skeat connected damp and dumps through the phrase to damp one’s spirits, but the connection looks weak. Dank may also belongs to this club, but discussing it would take us too far afield.

In the dump group, even easier cases than damp are not without problems. For instance, take dumpling. It is an obvious sum of dump and the diminutive suffix –ling, as in duckling, gosling, changeling, and so forth. But which dump? English dialectal dump “an ill-shaped piece” (applied to various short thick objects) has been attested. It may be related to the verb dump “to throw down with force; throw down in a mass,” but there is no absolute certainty. By contrast, Humpty Dumpty looks transparent, for he was short, even if not “thick”; this jocular word must be a derivative of dump. In such compounds, as a general rule, the determining element is the second, while the first one is meaningless, has no ascertainable origin, and often begins with an h (helter-skelter, hoity-toity, hootchykootchy, etc.). Above, we encountered the German word Tümpel “pond.” It matches Engl. dimple almost letter for letter. Both mean “a hollow,” and in the thirteenth century dimple also meant a hollow in the ground. It is the status of damp that keeps bothering me. Its meaning militates against allying it to dump, but from the point of view of ablaut dimpledampdump is such an attractive group!

Deedle is a nice onomatopoeia that means nothing. It just alliterates with dumpling, and dumplings are always welcome.

If the verb dump had ever meant “to make a hole or hollow,” its origin would have become clear, but such a sense has not been recorded. Perhaps dump is sound-imitative, like plump? The adjective plump was first attested in the fifteenth century with the meaning “dull, blockish.” Its cognates mean “unshapen; obtuse,” and of course the verb plump means “to fall down with a thud.” “Unshapen” and “obtuse” are close enough. Compare blockish ~ blockhead, fathead, and thickhead ~ thickheaded. If dump and plump are somehow connected, the problem is partly solved, but of course we don’t know whether they are. Conversely, dumps and hollow are close. Note that the word depression denotes both a hollow and low sprits.

Dimple and dump may be related, but what a world of difference!

To repeat: in my opinion, the most problematic word in the entire group is damp. It is sometimes supposed to be allied to Latin fūmus “smoke” (which we know from fume) and even to s-team, assuming that s- in steam is the so-called s-mobile, an evasive sound whose ghost has appeared in this blog more than once. In case dank has anything to do with my story, we have one more candidate whose legitimacy is doubtful but not improbable. I also wonder (a heretical thought) whether all those words have anything to do with deep! Damp ~ dimp- ~ dump– could be onomatopoeic (sound-imitative), though damp does look like an odd man out. An inconclusive story, I admit, but gleaning is hard when the ground is covered with frost and snow, as in the famous children’s poem about two little kittens.


I have a few more interesting questions but will answer them in the next set of gleanings. Today I’ll only touch on the query about ablaut, because it is connected with what has been written above. Ablaut refers to the fact that in Germanic, as in the other Indo-European languages, vowels alternated according to strict rules. In Germanic, there were six series: .1. ei ~ ai ~ i ~ i. 2. eu ~ au ~ u ~ u. 3. e ~ a ~ u ~ u. 4. e ~ a ~ ǣ ~ u. 5. e ~ a ~ ǣ ~ e, and 6. a ~ ō ~ ō ~ a. (in Classes 3, 4, and 5, I did not specify the consonants following the vowels; they have no bearing on my brief note.) Those series were like non-intersecting railway tracks. For instance, i was not allowed to alternate with u, because they belonged to different series. Some vestiges of the old system of ablaut can still be seen in the principal parts of such English verbs as rise ~ rose ~ risen, find ~ found, speak ~ spoke, get ~ got, and others like them (grammars call such verbs strong) and elsewhere. In all handbooks, the alternating series of vowels are given in the order presented above, from 1 to 6. The question was from a correspondent who knew that the scheme had been offered by Jacob Grimm (few non-specialists are aware of this fact), but he wondered why it was established in this order. I do not know. The numbering was, I assume, arbitrary, but perhaps the reason was this: The first and the second “class” have diphthongs in the first two parts (ei ~ ai and eu ~ au), so Jacob Grimm perhaps thought that it would be logical to begin with them. I have no materials to confirm my guess, but I don’t think he explained his coinages and orderings anywhere.

Featured image credit: IMG_7369-1500 by Bengt Nyman. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Images: (1) “Guinea pig” by vantagepointfl. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Soup dumpling” by Andrew Mager. CCo CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr(3) “Woman, smile” by bearinthenorth. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Sebastian Hambleton

    typo alert: middle of last paragraph – “and elsewehre”.

    (I enjoy the posts enormously. I am always happy to learn more about technical things, e.g., ablauts.)

  2. Yasmin Coonjah

    Hi Sebastian, thank you for pointing this out, it has now been corrected.

    Many thanks,
    Yasmin (OUPblog deputy editor)

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