So I recently had a pretty disconcerting experience. It turns out that almost no one else has heard of a word that I thought was pretty common. And when I say “no one” I’m including dialectologists; it’s unattested in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English. Out of the twenty two people who responded to my Twitter poll (which was probably mostly other linguists, given my social networks) only one other person said they’d even heard the word and, as I later confirmed, it turned out to be one of my college friends.
So what is this mysterious word that has so far evaded academic inquiry? Ladies, gentlemen and all others, please allow me to introduce you to…
The word means something like “fool” or “incompetent person”. To prove that this is actually a real word that people other than me use, I’ve (very, very laboriously) found some examples from the internet. It shows up in the comments section of this news article:
THAT is why people are voting for Mr Trump, even if he does act sometimes like a Bumpus.
I also found it in a smattering of public tweets like this one:
If you ever meet my dad, please ask him what a “bumpus” is
And this one:
Having seen horror of war, one would think, John McCain would run from war. No, he runs to war, to get us involved. What a bumpus.
And, my personal favorite, this one:
because the SUN(in that pic) is wearing GLASSES god karen ur such a bumpus
There’s also an Urban Dictionary entry which suggests the definition:
A raucous, boisterous person or thing (usually african-american.)
I’m a little sceptical about the last one, though. Partly because it doesn’t line up with my own intuitions (I feel like a bumpus is more likely to be silent than rowdy) and partly becuase less popular Urban Dictionary entries, especially for words that are also names, are super unreliable.
I also wrote to my parents (Hi mom! Hi dad!) and asked them if they’d used the word growing up, in what contexts, and who they’d learned it from. My dad confirmed that he’d heard it growing up (mom hadn’t) and had a suggestion for where it might have come from:
I am pretty sure my dad used it – invariably in one of the two phrases [“don’t be a bumpus” or “don’t stand there like a bumpus”]…. Bumpass, Virginia is in Lousia County …. Growing up in Norfolk, it could have held connotations of really rural Virginia, maybe, for Dad.
While this is definitely a possibility, I don’t know that it’s definitely the origin of the word. Bumpass, Virginia, like Bumpass Hell (see this review, which also includes the phrase “Don’t be a bumpass”), was named for an early settler. Interestingly, the college friend mentioned earlier is also from the Tidewater region of Virginia, which leads me to think that the word may have originated there.
My mom offered some other possible origins, that the term might be related to “country bumpkin” or “bump on a log”. I think the latter is especially interesting, given that “bump on a log” and “bumpus” show up in exactly the same phrase: standing/sitting there like a _______.
She also suggested it might be related to “bumpkis” or “bupkis”. This is a possibility, especially since that word is definitely from Yiddish and Norfolk, VA does have a history of Jewish settlement and Yiddish speakers.
A usage of “Bumpus” which seems to be the most common is in phrases like “Bumpus dog” or “Bumpus hound”. I think that this is probably actually a different use, though, and a direct reference to a scene from the movie A Christmas Story:
One final note is that there was a baseball pitcher in the late 1890’s who went by the nickname “Bumpus”: Bumpus Jones. While I can’t find any information about where the nickname came from, this post suggests that his family was from Virginia and that he had Powhatan ancestry.
I’m really interesting in learning more about this word and its distribution. My intuition is that it’s mainly used by older, white speakers in the South, possibly centered around the Tidewater region of Virginia.
If you’ve heard of or used this word, please leave a comment or drop me a line letting me know 1) roughly how old you are, 2) where you grew up and 3) (if you can remember) where you learned it. Feel free to add any other information you feel might be relevant, too!