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The Scrivener: A Little Stumbled

On another journey of discovery through the history of our language Brian Barratt investigates "umble'' words.

The diaries of Samuel Pepys occasionally give us glimpses of old spellings of familiar words. For instance, he often writes staied where we would now write stayed. One of the most interesting differences appears in his entry for 19 January 1660:

'This morning I was sent for to Mr. Downing, and at his bed side he told me, that he had a kindness for me, and that he thought that he had done me one; and that was, that he had got me to be one of the Clerks of the Council; at which I was a little stumbled, and could not tell what to do, whether to thank him or no; but by and by I did; but not very heartily, for I feared that his doing of it was but only to ease himself of the salary which he gives me.'

'I was a little stumbled'? The Oxford English Dictionary gives several historical examples of this usage, e.g., 'many were stumbled', 'he is much stumbled'. When one is stumbled, one is puzzled or embarrassed.

Other 'umble' words are worth looking at. For instance, a term we hear nowadays is 'bumble-bee'. William Shakespeare mentions bees several times, but never a bumble-bee. Instead, he writes humble bee. An early meaning of humble was 'to hum' but bumble could mean 'to boom'. In Middle English, it appears as bomblen, to boom, which is an imitative word. Chaucer's 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' has 'as a bitore bombleth in the myre', meaning 'as a bittern booms in the mire'.

To eat humble pie is to be apologetic and submissive. It was first used in this form in the 19th century. An earlier form from around the 1500s was umble pie, which is related to umbles, the edible viscera of a deer or other animal. We can assume that these were the leftovers and offal which one's servants and inferiors would be allowed to eat.

Umbles was a variation of numbles, a 14th century Old French word denoting various types of meat. Our humble pie thus seems to be a combination of humility and eating leftover scraps of meat.

Drumble is a 16th century word which is now obsolete. As a noun, it meant an inert, lazy person. As a verb, it meant to move slowly, unwillingly. Shakespeare used it only once, in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor':

'Go, take up these clothes here, quickly; where's the cowl-staff? Look how you drumble. Carry them to the laundress in Datchet Mead; quickly, come.'

It was still in use in 1755, when Dr Johnson defined it in his great dictionary as to drone, to be sluggish.

There is an obscure Scottish dialect word drumly, meaning gloomy. One wonders if this is what Charles Dickens had in mind when he named one of his characters Bentley Drummle, describing him as 'a sulky kind of fellow—idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious', in 'Great Expectations'.
In earlier centuries, drumble-drone was a drone bee, a bumble-bee, and a drumble-dore was a clumsily flying insect. In his novel 'Westward Ho!', Charles Kingsley goes back to that meaning:

'Oh, Mr. Cary, we have all known your pleasant ways, ever since you used to put drumble-drones into my desk to Bideford school.'

Dumble is an obsolete dialect word which was usually part of another word. Dumble-dore was another term for bumble-bee and humble-bee. Dore came from Old English dor, meaning a flying insect. How this relates to the name of the popular gay professor in the Harry Potter stories is unclear. In the 16th century, the dialect word dummel meant stupid or slow. This has become one of the meanings of dumb.

Mumble came into English in the 14th century. It was adapted from Germanic and Scandinavian words mumla, mumle, appearing in Middle English as momele, to chatter, and mummin, to mutter. Mamble, meaning to chatter, is a Middle English word which is now obsolete.

It has been suggested that these mumble words related to talking with one's mouth full, and might have an imitative origin in that they come from mump, meaning a grimace or an awkward movement of the mouth. This is where we get our word for the disease mumps.

William Shakespeare used the word mumble only three times in all his plays. He also coined a delightful phrase for a gossip or tattler: mumble-mews.

There are quite a few other umble words but two which are listed on Web sites relating to the game of Scrabble are spurious. The Oxford English Dictionary makes no mention of kumble or trumble and I can find no reference to them anywhere else as real words.

I'm rather pleased that Mr Downing's statement stumbled Mr Pepys. It has stimulated another journey of discovery through the history of our rich and ever-changing language.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2012.

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