Daily Archives: March 10, 2009


One of those words (like blivet) that are typically used so they can be explained. Imagine this word in old-style Gothic lettering – where m‘s and w‘s and u‘s and n‘s and, but for the dot, i‘s were all series of the same stroke, and nearly indistinguishable: the only things to stand out would be the p and the two s‘s. The rest lapses into incoherence. Swapping the initial m for an s would make it a bit better to read. But, oh, we couldn’t do that! We must keep the three combs (with three lines each) and two cups (with two lines each) and one candle (with one line and a dot) and it will all be neat and tidy, the way it was meant to be. Even if it does make one think of a childhood disease. In fact, it’s a bit of a dumb-sounding word, isn’t it? A bit thick and slow, perhaps. Well, and this is all leading up to the explanation (“At last!” you say, momentarily pausing your finger-drumming. “Well, get on with it!”). Erasmus, in 1516, recounted the story of an ill-educated priest who had been incorrectly reciting “quod ore mumpsimus” in the Mass instead of the proper “quod ore sumpsimus” (mumpsimus doesn’t actually mean anything). When someone corrected him on it, he replied, “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.” And so this word has come to signify someone who clings stubbornly to an error in the belief that it is the old true form, or to an ignorant archaic belief of whatever sort; it also refers to the error thus clung to. So it is actually a nice, useful word if you have an interest in the English language, which is plagued with mumpsimuses (I don’t say mumpsimi not only because it’s not actually a Latin word but because the supposed Latin word it’s taken from is a conjugated verb – the noun form is purely an English usage), such as those baseless shibboleths about “split infinitives” and not ending sentences with prepositions or starting them with conjunctions – cases where the “new error” is a time-honoured form and the “old right way” was someone’s misguided invention. Now let all those mumpsimuses and their mumpsimuses take their lumps and bumble off.