“There is bummerism in politics – in fact, it is the heart core.” Thus wrote an unnamed author in Varieties, of San Francisco.
Bummerism? Yeah! Politics is a total bummer, and it’s full of people who are total bummers too, like, y’know, dude? It’s such a downer, like a real drag. But that’s not quite what the author meant. Here’s another quote, from Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, that might help clarify the sense: “Corruption will run riot; bummerism and bribery will walk rough shod over decency and honesty.” It seems (and I take the word of the Oxford English Dictionary on this) that bummerism is corruption, or venality, or laziness – conduct characteristic of a bummer, which in this case is a kind of person: someone we might also call a bum.
You see how that would trace, right? A bum bums and so is a bummer, and bummerism is being like a bummer. Likewise, the more common modern sense of bummer is that the thing is bum, meaning ‘bad’, as in had a bum trip or got a bum steer. And from that we go back to bum, which has been brought to us by posteriority. Right?
Sorry, dude. Big bummer. That’s not how it goes. But the truth might ring a bell.
There’s one bit that’s basically right: bummer as in “That’s a real bummer, dude” does come from bum meaning ‘of poor quality’. But the rest? The relationship of bum to bummer is, in fact, like the relationship of edit to editor: the word that looks like it is a derived form is the one that actually came first. Edit is formed from editor, and when an indolent, indigent person is called a bum (which is also apparently the source of the bum that means ‘of low quality’, but is not related to the bum you’re sitting on), that is a backformation of bummer, meaning ‘vagrant’ and related things. Bummer in its turn most evidently comes from German Bummler, ‘unemployed person, wandering vagrant’, from the verb bummeln, meaning ‘wander, ramble; dawdle, laze’. It seems (it has been asserted by at least one established source) that bummeln comes from ‘swing back and forth like the clapper of a bell’ – you know, “boom-boom,” as we would write it in English, or „bum-bum“if you’re German.
Do you feel led on by that etymological peregrination? Bummer, dude. But it kind of comes back around, if you think of bummerism in politics as being like the clapper of a bell, swinging back and forth and making noise for whoever pulls your rope.
And are you kind of bummed out by “walk rough shod” and “it is the heart core” in those quotes back at the beginning of all this? Well, what can I say? That’s how they wrote it back then. Which, by the way, was farther back than you might have guessed: the quote from the Rocky Mountain News was from 1883, and the one from the San Francisco Varieties was from 1858.
Plus ça change, eh? Well, what goes around comes around (especially if it’s just lying around). Oxford skewers this word with the obelisk of obsoletion, but there’s plenty of bummerism to go around these days, and I’m sure we could bring it back.