What’s a “bumpus”?

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…

bumpis
Pronounced ‘bʌm.pɪs or ‘bʌm.pəs. You can hear me say the word and use it in context by listening to this low quality recording.

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!

 

Of cups, mugs, glasses and semantic drift

One of the more interesting little sub-fields in linguistics is diachronic semantics. That’s the study of how word meanings change over time. Some of these changes are relatively easy to track. A “mouse” to a farmer in 1900 was a small rodent with unfortunate grain-pilfering proclivities. To a farmer today, it’s also one of the tools she uses to interact with her computer. The word has gained a new semantic sense without losing it’s original meaning. Sometimes, however,  you have a weird little dance where a couple of words are negotiating over the same semantic space–that’s another way of saying a related group of concepts that a language groups together–and that’s where things get interesting. “Cup”, “mug” and “glass” are engaged in that little dance-off right now (at least in American English). Let’s see how they’re doing, shall we?

Glasses 800 edit
Cup? Glass? Jug? Mug? Why don’t we just call them all “drinking vessels” and be done with it?
Cup: Ok, quick question for you: does a cup have to have a handle? The Oxford dictionaries say “yes“, but I really think that’s out of date at this point. Dr. Reed pointed out that this was part of her criteria for whether something could be called a “cup” or not, but that a lot of younger speakers no longer make that distinction. In fact, recently I noticed that someone of my acquaintance uses “cup” to refer only to disposable cups. Cup also has the distinct advantage of being part of a lot of phrases: World cup, Stanley cup, cup of coffee, teacup, cuppa, cup of sugar, in your cups, and others that I can’t think of right now.

So “cup” is doing really well, and gaining semantic ground.

Glass: Glass, on the other hand, isn’t doing as well. I haven’t yet talked to someone who can use “glass” to refer to drinking vessels that aren’t actually made of glass including, perhaps a little oddly, clear disposable cups. On the other hand, there are some types of drinking vessels that I can only refer to as glasses. Mainly those for specific types of alcohol: wine glass, shot glass, martini glass, highball glass (though I’ve heard people referring to the glass itself just as a highball, so this might be on the way out). There are alcohol-specific pieces of glassware that don’t count as glasses though–e.g. champagne flute, brandy snifter–so it’s not a categorical distinction by any means.

“Glass” seems to be pretty stable, but if “cup” continues to become broader and broader it might find itself on the outs.

Mug: I don’t have as much observational data on this one, but there seems to be another shift going on here. “Mug” originally referred only to drinking vessels that were larger than cups (see below), and still had handles.

Mugs2000ppx
Note that the smaller ones on top are “cups” and the larger ones on the bottom are labelled as “mugs”.
Most people call those insulated drinking vessels with the attached lids “travel mugs” rather than “travel cups” (640,000 Google hits vs. 22,400) but I find myself calling them “cups” instead. I think it’s because 1) I pattern it with disposable coffee cups and 2) I find handledness is a necessary quality for mugs. I can call all of the drinking vessels in the picture above “mugs” and prefer “mug” to “cup”.

So, at least for me, “mug” is beginning to take over the semantic space allotted to “cup” by older speakers.

Of course, this is a very cursory, impressionistic snapshot of the current state of the semantic space. Without more robust data I’m hesitant to make concrete predictions about the ways in which these terms are negotiating their semantic space, but there’s definitely some sort of drift going on.

Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke … Which is right?

Short answer: they’re all correct (at least in the United States) but some are more common in certain dialectal areas. Here’s a handy-dandy map, in case you were wondering:

Maps! Language! Still one of my favorite combinations. This particular map, and the data collection it’s based on is courtesy of popvssoda.com. Click picture for link and all the lovely statistics. (You do like statistics, right?)

Long answer: I’m going to sort this into reactions I tend to get after answering questions like this one.

What  do you mean they’re all correct? Coke/Soda/Pop is clearly wrong. Ok, I’ll admit, there are certain situations when you might need to choose to use one over the other. Say, if you’re writing for a newspaper with a very strict style guide. But otherwise, I’m sticking by my guns here: they’re all correct. How do I know? Because each of them in is current usage, and there is a dialectal group where it is the preferred term. Linguistics (at least the type of linguistics that studies dialectal variation) is all about describing what people actually say and people actually say all three.

But why doesn’t everyone just say the same thing? Wouldn’t that be easier? Easier to understand? Probably, yes. But people use different words for the same thing for the same reasons that they speak different languages. In a very, very simplified way, it kinda works like this:

  • You tend to speak like the people that you spend time with. That makes it easier for you to understand each other and lets other people in your social group know that you’re all members of the same group. Like team jerseys.
  • Over time, your group will introduce or adopt new linguistic makers that aren’t necessarily used by the whole population. Maybe a person you know refers to sodas as “phosphates” because his grandfather was a sodajerk and that form really catches on among your friends.
  • As your group keeps using and adopting new words (or sounds, or grammatical markers or any other facet of language)  that are different from other groups their language slowly begins to drift away from the language used by other groups.
  • Eventually, in extreme cases, you end up with separate languages. (Like what happened with Latin: different speech communities ended up speaking French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and the other Romance languages rather than the Latin they’d shared under Roman rule.)

This is the process by which languages or dialectal communities tend to diverge. Divergence isn’t the only pressure on speakers, however. Particularly since we can now talk to and listen to people from basically anywhere (Yay internet! Yay TV! Yay radio!) your speech community could look like mine does: split between people from the Pacific Northwest and the South. My personal language use is slowly drifting from mostly Southern to a mix of Southern and Pacific Northwestern. This is called dialect leveling and it’s part of the reason why American dialectal regions tend include hundreds or thousands of miles instead of two or three.

Dialect leveling: Where two or more groups of people start out talking differently and end up talking alike. Schools tend to be a huge factor in this.

So, on the one hand, there is pressure to start all talking alike. On the other hand, however, I still want to sound like I belong with my Southern friends and have them understand me easily (and not be made fun of for sounding strange, let’s be honest) so when I’m talking to them I don’t retain very many markers of the Pacific Northwest. That’s pressure that’s keeping the dialect areas separate and the reason why I still say “soda”, even though I live in a “pop” region.

Huh. That’s pretty cool. Yep. Yep, it sure is.

What counts as a word?

A lot of us, as literate English speakers, have probably experienced that queasy moment of dread when you’re writing something on the computer and suddenly get a squiggly red line under a word you use all the time. You look at the suggested spellings… and none of them are the word you wanted. If you’re like me, at this point you hop online really quickly to make sure the word means what you thought it did and that you’re not butchering the spelling too horribly. Or maybe you turn to the dictionary you keep on your desk. Or maybe you turn to someone sitting next to you and ask “Is this a real word?”.

Latin dictionary
Oh, this? It’s just the pocket edition. The full one is three hundred volumes and comes with an elephant named George to carry it around your house. And it’s covered in gold. This edition is only bound in unicorn skin but it’s fine for a quick desk reference.
The underlying assumption behind the search to see if someone else uses the word is that, if they don’t, you can’t either. It’s not a “real word”.  Which begs the question: what makes a word real? Is there a moment of Pinocchio-like transformation where the hollow wooden word someone created suddenly takes on life and joins the ranks of the English language to much back-slapping and cigar-handing from the other vetted words? Is there a little graduation party where the word gets a diploma from the OED and suddenly it’s okay to use it whenever you want? Or does it get hired by the spelling board and get to work right away?

OK, so that was getting a bit silly, but my point is that most people have the vague notion that there’s a distinction between “real” words and “fake” words that’s pretty hard and fast. Like most slang words and brand names are fake words. I like to call this the Scrabble distinction. If you can play it in Scrabble, it counts and you can put it in a paper or e-mail and no one will call you on it. If you can’t, it’s a fake word and you use it at your own risk. Dictionaries play a large part in determining which is which, right? The official Scrabble dictionary is pretty conservative: it doesn’t have d’oh in it for example. But it’s also not without controversy. The first official Scrabble dictionary, for example, didn’t have “granola” in it, which the Oxford English Dictionary (the great grand-daddy of English dictionaries and probably the most complete record ever complied of the lexicon of any language ever) notes was first used in 1886 and I think most of us would agree is a “real” word.

The line is even blurrier than that, though. English is a language with a long and rich written tradition. In some ways, that’s great. We’ve got a lot more information on how words used to be pronounced than we would have otherwise and a lot of diachronic information. (That’s information about how the language has changed over time. 😛 ) But if you’ve been exposed mainly to the English tradition, as I have, you tend to forget that writing isn’t inseparable from spoken language. They’re two different things and there are a lot of traditions that aren’t writing-based. Consider, for example, the Odù Ifá, an entirely oral divination text from Nigeria that sometimes gets compared to the bible or the Qur’an. In the cultures I was raised in, the thought of a sacred text that you can’t read is strange, but that’s just part of the cultural lens that I see the world through; I shouldn’t project that bias onto other cultures.

So non-literary cultures still need to add words to their lexicons, right? But how do they know which words are “real” without dictionaries? It depends. Sometimes it just sort of happens organically. We see this in English too. Think about words associated with texting or IMing like “lol” or “brb” (that’s “laughing out loud” and “be right back” for those of you who are still living under rocks). I’ve noticed people saying these in oral conversations more and more and I wouldn’t be surprised if in fifty years “burb” started showing up in dictionaries. But even cultures which have only had writing systems for a very short amounts of time have gatekeepers. Navajo, which has only been written since around 1940, is a great example. Peter Ladefoged shares the following story in Phonetic Data Analysis:

One of our former UCLA linguistics students who is a Navajo tells how she was once giving a talk in a Navajo community. She was showing how words could be put together to create new words (such as sweet + heart creates a word with an entirely new meaning). When she was explaining this an elder called out: ‘Stop this blasphemy! Only the gods can create words.’ The Navajo language is holy in a way that is very foreign to most of us (p. 13).

So in Navajo you have elders and religious leaders who are the guardians of the language and serve as the final authorities. (FUN FACT: “authority” comes from the same root as “author”. See how writing-dependent English is?) There are always gray areas though. Language is, after all, incredibly complex. I’ll leave you one case to think about.

“Rammaflagit.” That’s ɹæm.ə.flæʒ.ɪt in the international phonetic alphabet. (I remember how thrilled my dad was when I told him I was studying IPA in college.) I hear it all the time and it means something like “gosh darn it”, sort of a bolderized curse word. Real word or not? The dictionaries say “no”, but the people  who I’ve heard using it would clearly say “yes”. What do you think?

The Many Moods of “Alarming”

So you’ll all be doubtless relieved to know that I have cheerfully settled in Seattle and immediately returned to my old tricks. Observe this gem brought to you by Seattle City Light:

Something’s alarming right enough… but I think it’s actually my linguistics sense.

Now, as both a linguist and native speaker of American English, I find this command troubling. Not because I have a problem with civic-minded individuals alerting the power company to potentially dangerous problems, but because it’s ambiguous. I’ve written about ambiguity in language before, but it’s something that I revisit often and it’s a complex enough subject that you can easily spend an entire lifetime studying it, let alone more than one blog post.

Let’s examine why this sign is ambiguous a little more closely.

First, there’s (what I would consider) a non-standard usage of the word “alarming”.  I tend to imagine something that is “alarming” to be capable of putting me in a state of alarm, rather than currently expressing alarm. Or, as the OED puts it:

“Disturbing or exciting with the apprehension of danger.”

Yeah, that’s right, “alarming” is one of the few words that the OED only has one definition for. Let’s put that aside for the moment, though, and assume that there’s a linguistically-creative sign maker working for Seattle City Light who has coined a neologism based on parallels with words like “understanding” or “revolving”. The real crux of the matter is that the command is not a sentence, and has just too many gaps where the reader has to fill in information.

These are just a couple of the possible interpretations I came up for the sign:

  • If [the alarm is] alarming (in the sense of performing the action which alarms traditionally do, such as whooping and revolving) [then] call.
  • If [you are] alarming [other people, then] call.
  • If [the alarm is] alarming [you, regardless of whether or not it’s currently flashing or making noise then] call.

Now, English syntax is a pretty resilient beast and can put up with a certain amount of words  left out. The fancy linguistics term for this is “ellipsis“, just like the punctuation mark. (This one: …) Words have to be left out of of certain places in certain ways,  though. Like you don’t have to say “you” every time you tell someone to do something. “Don’t sit there!” is perfectly acceptable as a sentence, and if someone told  you that you’d have no problem figuring out that they were telling you not to sit on their cat. Like everything else in language, though, there are rules and by breaking them you run the risk of failing to communicate what you’re trying to… just like this sign.