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Some gleanings and the shortest history of bummers

Before coming to the point, I wish to thank our readers for commenting on the previous post, which was devoted to the history and origin of lady. Yet one comment hearkens back to my ideas on the etymology of quiz. I think such a “funny” monosyllable could be coined more than once. Some language historians choose to refer to so-called multiple origins. Yet even if some word had, like the Scandinavian god Heimdall(r), nine mothers, only one must have been the real source of the form that continued into the present. The problem is to find the successful progenitor.

Another reader noted that essays, like the one devoted to the word lady, are more attractive than such as deal with an obscure piece of American slang (the reference must have been to fink “police informer; strikebreaker”). Tastes differ, but the origin of slang interest many people. Let us also remember that this weekly blog is supposed to deal with etymology. To be sure, since March 1, 2006 (the day on which the blog was launched), I have occasionally discussed usage and other topics not related directly with word origins, but those were chance “deviations.” Finally, the development of meaning is easy to follow by consulting the OED, and I always try to avoid recycling the information available elsewhere. As far as lady is concerned, I was in a good position, because I could use a long article about that word’s history. At the moment, I have a candidate for another similar post and will probably soon avail myself of it. Also, today’s post is both about origins and history.

Finally, a note on the ladybird. I too grew up using this word but changed it to ladybug in America, just as I substituted bug for beetle and almost stopped using the present perfect.

And now some observations on bummers, inspired by an old exchange in Notes in Queries. If you’re so inclined, I’ve provided a soundtrack for this particular post.

Many years ago, I wrote a series of posts on the names of drinking vessels. One of them dealt with bumper. Words like bump, thump, bomb, and boom are rater obviously sound-imitative, but this does not mean that they have no history worthy of investigation. Bumper was a typical example. Do bum and bummer belong with it? As early as the eighteen-sixties, bummer was traced to German bummeln “to stroll,” its Dutch cognate, or to several German verbs referring to a booming noise. Californian and Nevada miners connected bummers and cockchafers. The author of the note on this subject added: “I have myself heard a lady [!] on a Virginia plantation speak of ‘bummers booming around’. The word in its insect meaning is evidently formed from sound.”

A classic bummer, but not the one we need.
Image by Patrick Rock via Wikimedia Commons. CC3.0.

A correspondent from Paisley (Renfrewshire, Scotland) wrote: “Bummer is a slang word in this district to signify a person who is given to talking in a boastful manner; also to one who utters much idle and foolish talk. It is only used among a certain class of people. Those who are choice in their language [sic] never use it. Bumming is equivalent to ‘humming’, of bees. Bees are sometimes called here bumbees. Hence a bummer may be a person who bums like a bee, that is, utters a deal of empty sound to no purpose.”

 The never-to-be-forgotten Mr. Bumble did get his comeuppance. Say no to bumbledom!
Image by Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke), Wikimedia Commons via Picryl. Public Domain.

The knowledgeable Edward Bradley (not to be confused with Henry Bradley of the OED), who wrote under the pen name Cuthbert Bede, commented on the word so: “In an almost obsolete ceremony of beating the bounds, a person is selected to be bumped at certain places at a certain part; and I have heard the above title [bummer] assigned to him, for very obvious reasons.” He added that in some parts of East Anglia bitterns were called bummers, a synonym for boomers, and concluded his note so: “The word ‘bumble-bee’ is very common; and I have always fancied that from this ‘yellow-liveried’ gentleman, with his obesity and fussiness, Mr. Dickens took the name of his never-to-be-forgotten Bumble.” In 1868, Dickens was still alive; hence Mr. Dickens. Cuthbert Bede was probably right, though he did not remember that in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, there is a line: “And as a bittern bumbleth in the myre.” Incidentally, it will be observed that we are a century away from the Americanism bummer “a severe disappointment.” Its etymology is not as obvious as it may seem.

Then there once was the word bummaree. The original OED referred bummaree to bottomry, a legal term in mortgaging ships: the money under this contract is borrowed upon the bottom or keel of the ship (that is, the ship itself!). Apparently, in the second half of the seventeenth century, bum “bottom” was not vulgar. Later, it became a word “not in polite use.” Bum “buttocks” throws an additional light on bummer. Whatever the origin of bummer may be, the word could not avoid associations with bum, polite or impolite. That association was not lost on the speakers who contributed their opinions to Notes and Queries in the second half of the nineteenth century: “This [bummer] probably is an adaptation of a very coarse common English word, and signifies a squatter; one who sits in your cabin till everybody is tired of him, and at last are glad to be rid of him by giving him something” (1888). Or “a bummer may be a person who bums like a bee, that is, utters a deal of empty sound to no purpose” (1868), an already familiar derivation.

Then there is bummaree. I’ll reproduce part of an unsigned letter to Notes and Queries (November 3, 1888, p. 5; it was reprinted elsewhere in 1890 and 1891). Among other things, it contains, though, unfortunately, without an exact reference, an antedating to the citations in OED: “This [bummer] is usually considered to be an Americanism. [?]. But, like many other Americanisms, it is simply a legitimate descendant of an Old English word, bummaree, which may be found in the ‘English Market By-Laws’ of over two hundred years ago. In the London Publick Intelligencer for the year 1660 it appears in several advertisements. Bummaree meant a man who retails fish by peddling outside of the regular market. These persons were looked down upon and regarded as cheats by the established dealers, hence the name became one of contempt for a dishonest person of irregular habits. The word first appeared in the United States during the ‘50’s in California, and traveled eastward until during the civil war [sic] it came into general use.” If I understand the idea of this note correctly, bum is said to be the stub of bummaree.

No bummarees allowed on these premises.
Image by Ben Stephenson via Flickr. CC2.0.

The spelling traveled in the note above (with one l) betrays an American. Thus, we are offered a third etymology of bum (a stub of bummaree). This etymology is unlikely, because bummaree could never be a widely-known word. Still, we wonder: what could be the origin of the exotic-sounding bummaree? If it is bum-a-ree (compare cockle-a-doo or jack-a-dandy), what is ree? The OED lists several obscure nouns spelled ree, none of which fits this context. An old hypothesis derived bummaree from French bonne marée “good fresh sea fish” (folk etymology? Or did those cheats pretend to be French?). In any case, the paths of bum and bummaree hardly ever crossed.

James A. H. Murray said that the use of the word boom has not been regulated by any distinct etymological feeling (what a wonderful formulation!). Isn’t this also true of bum? And couldn’t bum, like, presumably, quiz, be born of more mothers than one, with only one being considered legitimate?

Featured image by George Eastman Museum via Flickr. No known copyright restrictions.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    On quiz. I agree with your new book, Origin Uncertain, that a derivation from Latin is to be rejected. And the story that quiz was a word invented to win a bet fails because the word existed before the claimed bet.
    You have proposed quiz as the name of a toy, also called a bandalore. I think quiz originally referred to an odd-looking person called a queer phiz, contracted to quiz. Quiz was recently antedated (by David Denison) in two 1779 letters by Prince George, later King George IV, who clearly meant quizzes were odd looking people. Development from an odd-look person name to a later toy name seems to me more likely than the reverse.

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