Sumpsimus, Mumpsimus

Another book bites the dust.

I check out Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea with high hopes. It seems to have everything. It is about words (I like words), and it is funny (I like funny). Shea, a collector of dictionaries, sets out to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, all twenty volumes. Each letter gets a chapter, with a short introductory essay and then a selection of words that have caught Shea’s fancy.

Let me back up and explain, in case you haven’t encountered this mammoth work. The OED goes beyond a mere unabridged dictionary. The OED strives to include every word that has ever appeared in English. It’s a dictionary for antiquarians and people who have OCD in the verbal department. It’s a wonderful, miraculous human endeavor and contains quirky, bizarre words, such as heredipity, the hunting of an inheritance, and storge, instinctive affection, as of parents for children.

Shea’s little essays are fun, as are his selections of words, but not fun enough for me to continue reading. He provides only a brief definition of his selected words and perhaps an example or comment. Reading a list of words that Shea happens to find interesting is not that interesting for myself, and guess what is missing. Etymologies! The OED includes them, of course, but Shea must have thought his readers wouldn’t care. I care!

The reader should know, for example, that storge derives from ancient Greek and is pronounced store-gay. The context of Greek terms for love is what is most interesting: storge, philia, eros, and agape all describe different kinds of love. Philosophers and preachers have made much of these terms and differences, which our little word love struggles to contain.

Shea also cites hamartia, Aristotle’s term for a tragic hero’s fatal flaw, such as Oedipus’s arrogance and pride (hubris). But Shea doesn’t explain the interesting part. The Greek word actually means “missing the mark,” describing an arrow shot toward a target. The tragic hero fails, sure, but not for lack of trying. Our sins, as well, can be seen as examples of hamartia, trying to hit the target, maybe time after time, and failing in the attempt. It’s a compassionate definition of sin as falling short.

When I read that mumpsimus, for example, means “a stubborn refusal to give up an archaism in speech or language,” I yearn to know why. Where does that strange word come from?

Here’s the answer, from a quick Google search. Mumpsimus is a mid-16th century English word erroneously derived from the Latin phrase, “sumpsimus in quod in ore,” which occurs in the Mass after communion. The phrase means “that which we have taken into the mouth,” referring to the Eucharist. An illiterate priest, in an apocryphal story, mistakenly read “quod in ore mumpsimus.” When corrected, he replied, “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.” So mumpsimus means clinging to an outdated or incorrect word.

To me, this illiterate priest makes for a far more amusing story than the mere word mumpsimus. But maybe it’s just me.

What’s your favorite weird or quirky word, and why?

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6 Responses to Sumpsimus, Mumpsimus

  1. Kathy says:

    Sarah–I see that “behemoth” may derive from the Egyptian word for hippopotamus. So it’s large beasties, for sure. Cows would qualify.

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    I’ve recently been studying Hebrew (for my sins).

    The word behemah means animal; behemoth means animals.

    So a behemoth is not a Yeti, it’s just some cows!

  3. Kathy says:

    Jewel–Just looked up the origins of serendipity, which is very interesting.

  4. Kathy says:

    Roger–I think this is a very sweet story of an earnest young pastor who wants to use that long word correctly. (Unless you were partly joking, which is sweet in another way.)

  5. Roger Talbott says:

    I don’t want to anoint it as my favorite weird word, but I did succeed in using antidisestablishmentarianism correctly in a sermon once. I can’t remember the exact context. I only remember that I succeeded. It was with my first, full-time (as opposed to student) pastorate. They were smart enough to appreciate my accomplishment and kind enough to forgive my hubris.

  6. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    It seems to me that the definition of heredipity, “the hunting of an inheritance,” should be “the finding of an inheritance,” like serendipity (finding something beneficial by chance).

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