I suppose if we’re being honest we would all confess to being a tad bumptious on occasion, say, perhaps when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. It’s also highly likely that we’ve encountered someone who is irritatingly self-assertive all the damn time: the sort of person who’s never wrong and is more than eager to let everyone know.
Certainly such characters are found depicted in novels by Dickens and Trollope or in Ealing comedy films of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and those of the Carry On comedies. Contemporaries which spring to mind as fitting the definition of the word are John Bercow (Speaker of the House of Commons), Boris Johnson (now British PM), Donald J. Trump (President of the United States of America), Morrissey (singer-songwriter, now turned writer of fiction), Kanye West (giant ego), Piers Morgan (another giant ego) and Ricky Gervais, who in real life and in fictional representation as David Brent, reveals an ego the size of a planet.
Synonyms of bumptious are equally splendid: swollen-headed, puffed-up, sententious, pontificating, overweening, strutting, cocky, snooty, uppity. You get my drift?
Bumptious is as bumptious does: a word that perfectly signifies its meaning when pronounced. A compound of the words “bump” and “fractious” its etymological origin believed to be an expression coined by students at Cambridge University in the nineteenth century ¹ to denote those who were deemed “showy” – a social sin far greater than most in the best social circles.
¹ Bristed, Charles Astor, Five Years in an English University, 3rd ed., (G. P. Putnam & Sons), 1873, p. 193.
Puckfyst – a crazy word you might say. Is it even a word? In fact it’s an Old English word that like many have now slipped out of common usage. Its etymological root is the noun puck (a mischievous nature sprite) + the noun fist or fyst (the fungus known as puffball).
Puckfyst has three definitions 1) relating to the fungi Lycoperdon Bovista that contains dusty spores which when disturbed allow the fungus to distribute into the wind allowing reproduction; 2) a term of contempt for a braggart; 3) a niggard, someone who is mean and close-fisted. So should you meet or know a person who boasts, puffs themselves up or is tight with their money, then you have found yourself a puckfyst.
The first published record of the word is 1598 in the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson‘s Every Man In His Humour: “To be enamour’d on this dusty turf, This clod, a whoreson puck-fist”.
He uses it twice more in his work, for example in 1601 in Poetaster (a poetaster being an inferior poet with artistic pretentions, first coined by Erasmus in 1521): “I’ll blow him into aire, when I meet him next: He dares not fight with a puck-fist.”
Not so surprisingly puckfyst or puckfist is found in books on farming, the earliest record being 1766 in The Complete Farmer: “The narcotic, or stupefying fume, is made with the large mushroom, commonly known by the name bunt, puckfist, or frog-cheese.” ¹
In writings on bee-keeping it is first mentioned as early as 1609: “Next vnto Brimstone [for smoking bees] is the smoake of Bunt or great Pucfists, Tuchwood, or Mushrums.”
¹ Miles, W. J., The Complete Farmer: or a General Dictionary of Husbandry, The Society of Gentlemen), 1766.
Having set myself the task of choosing a #wonderword of the week, I discover the hardest part is deciding which one?
In my search for this week’s little humdinger I stumbled across two very rich sources of the etymology of the English language – both focussing on the historical development of slang or indeed “vulgar”, “canting”, or what we might consider today to be “urban”. There are subtle differences.
These sources are The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose, ¹ and the “Dictionary of Cant and English Slang. A Collection of the Canting Words and Terms, both ancient and modern, used by Beggars, Gypsies, Cheats, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifters, Foot-Pads, Highway-Men, &c;” in The Universal Etymological English Dictionary, by N. Bailey, London, 1737, Vol. II. ²
I was toying with the idea of selecting the word Hugotontheonbiquiffinarians which interestingly has the same number of letters as the alphabet, but decided rightly, I think, that as I can’t even pronounce the word adequately much less find any more information other than it was a Society that existed in 1748, it was best not to tread any further.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to know that Hugotontheonbiquiffinarians is mentioned in an academic paper entitled ‘Third Edition of Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: Bookseller’s Hackwork or Posthumous Masterpiece?” given at a Lexicography conference at the University of Leicester in 2002. ³
What about the word I finally plump for? It’s Hum Box. Quite simply it was the slang word used in the eighteenth century (and possibly earlier) for the pulpit, and its origin is closely linked to the word “hum”, the plural of which (“hums”) was used to describe large numbers of people congregating in a church.
Therefore to describe a pulpit as a Hum Box was surely not just a description of the place from where sermons were delivered nor the sound emanating from it, but also, perhaps, a humorous or even derogatory swipe at the English clergy of the eighteenth century?
Nowadays, a Hum Box has a different meaning and application. Mostly connected to electronic sound equipment, alas.
¹ See here.
² See here.
³ Coleman, Julie, & McDermott, Anne, (eds), Historical Dictionaries and Historical Dictionary Research: Papers from the International Conference on Historical Lexicography and Lexicology, at the University of Leicester, (Walter de Gruyter), 2004. See here.
Swither is such a delicious word. It conveys its meaning with perfection. It has a swooning, sweeping quality that summons up the feeling that everyone experiences occasionally – hesitation, indecision, doubt, to be perplexed as what to do. It has an Edward Lear sensibility that sits happily alongside the best of his wordplay. For this reason it is our #wonderword of the week.
Its etymological origin is a little vague but placed sometime in the early sixteenth century. British but more commonplace in Scotland where it has become a beloved word.
According to The Bottle Imp ¹ e-zine, written and maintained by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, “swither” is given full and loving treatment as the “Scots Word of the Season” in their fifth issue. According to Maggie Scott, a lecturer in English at the University of Salford:
“The origins of ‘swither’ are unclear, although connection with an Old English verb of similar form and meaning has been suggested. Besides faltering or hesitation, the word can also indicate fluctuation or fitful movement, and the Dictionary of the Scots Language records a number of instances of swithering cloud formations and unstable markets.”
And just as good are the words that rhyme with swither. Blither, hither, dither, slither, zither, whither, wither!
¹ The Bottle Imp is named for a short story written by Robert Louis Stevenson, of which an online version can be downloaded here.