MUMFORDISH.

Geoff Pullum presents an interesting conundrum at the Log:

In 1934, the philologist A. S. C. Ross wrote a review of the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary Supplement (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 35: 128-132) in which he referred to taboo words as “mumfordish” vocabulary. He used the same word again in the same year in a short note in Transactions of the Philological Society (volume 33, issue 1, page 99), and again made it clear that for him it was a synonym for “taboo” or “obscene” as applied to lexical items. Charlotte Brewer of Oxford University, an expert on the history of the OED (author of Treasure-house of the Language: The Living OED and creator of the marvellous Examining the OED website), mentioned in a paper presented at the ISLE-1 conference in Freiburg last week that she was baffled by the word mumfordish. So am I. Can any Language Log reader shed serious (rather than speculative) light on its etymology?

I join him in the quest, except that I welcome speculation as well as solemn scholarship. My guess is that the reference is to Lewis Mumford, who was already well known as a literary critic and authority on architecture and urban life by 1934, but of course it could be to some now-forgotten person or literary character of that name, perhaps even a personal acquaintance of Ross’s (although it seems unlikely that in those buttoned-down days a scholar would make a puckish personal reference that his readers had no hope of deciphering). I was briefly encouraged when I discovered that Lewis Mumford had a book called Sticks and Stones (1924), but it turns out to be about American architecture. Any suggestions?

Comments

  1. Crown, AJP says:

    I don’t see why he would want to associate poor old Lewis Mumford with “obscene words”, though Mumford is an unusual name. Maybe it’s rhyming slang, Mumford’s Ravine = obscene: ‘Gor blimy Ross, that review of yours in the Neuphilologische Mitteilungen‘s a bit Mumfords, innit?’

  2. I will speculate that whatever the origins of the word, it almost certainly has nothing to do with Mumford the Magician from Sesame Street back in the day.
    His magic words were “A-la-peanut-butter-sandwiches!”

  3. J. Del Col says:

    Read Mumford’s –Technology and Civilization.– (1934)– He coined words like ‘megatechnics, ‘polytechnics, monotechnics, etc., to express his thoughts about technological developments. Perhaps it was Mumford’s fondness for such neologisms that was being referred to.

  4. Interestingly, the OED itself has one citation with the word “mumfordish” in it. It’s given in the entry for “John,” illustrating its use as an abbreviation for “John Thomas,” or “penis.” Here’s the citation:
    1934 Neuphilol. Mitt. XXXV. 130 Here [at public-school] his first linguistic experience will be with mumfordish and swear-words (e.g…john ‘penis’..).
    I haven’t had a chance to track down the article from which this is drawn; more context might make things clearer here. Still, the association between “mumfordish” and public-school behavior makes me doubt that it’s derived from the name Lewis Mumford.

  5. Perhaps it’s an allusion to the steamboat mate Uncle Mumford in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (Chapter 28, “Uncle Mumford Unloads“). He was given to interjections like “Hump yourself, you son of an undertaker!”

  6. I think Ben Zimmer’s suggestion is more likely than mine.
    niepokuj: That’s the A. S. C. Ross review cited by Pullum.

  7. Crown, AJP says:

    It seems from his first linguistic experience will be with mumfordish and swear-words that Mumfordish is a word in itself, not a synonym for ‘Mumford-like’. So that rules out Lewis (thank god). Mumfordish, if you google it, also looks like a name.

  8. Actually, I prefer Ray Girvan’s suggestion, that it’s an allusion to the bawdy attendant Mumford in The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. That seems a more likely point of reference for Alan S C Ross than the Twain character.

  9. So far, everything I’ve found confirms the Lewis Mumford theory. Of the three citations I’ve found on Google reader for “mumfordish” before 1934, two are related to linguistic taboos (the two same sources listed above) and the third, in a 1932 Sewanee Review article, looks to be about the Brooks-Mumford School and their brand of conservative sociology.
    I will leave it up to someone who has access to the Sewanee Review archives to make sure this isn’t a false positive, though.

  10. Crown, AJP says:

    I’m quite sure this isn’t about Lewis Mumford, he didn’t have an international reputation in 1934. Anyone who’s got access ought to try looking up the Mumfords in the Oxford DNB.

  11. J. Del Col says:

    The title of L. Mumford’s 1934 classic is, of course, –Technics and Civilization.–
    My bad.

  12. Here is a possible candidate: a dictionary by one W. B. Mumford, published in 1882. Maybe it had some mumfordish words in it, illustrated? No pageviews available at Google Books. In any case, I’m betting the term derives from some Victorian censor or prescriptivist pedagogue.

  13. I don’t think it is Lewis Mumford; I think Dr W Bryant Mumford is meant. He lectured in ‘comparative education with special reference to “primitive peoples”‘ in the (London) Institute of Education Colonial Department at the time that ACS Ross was making his remarks, later (1935-51) becoming principal of the London Day Training College, whose remit was education in the colonies, and whose name later became Department of Education in Tropical Areas.
    I have just looked at an article written by Dr W Bryant Mumford entitled ‘The Heha-Bena-Sangu peoples of East Africa’ in American Anthropologist (New Series), Vol 36, no. 2, (Apr-Jun 1934, pp 203-222).
    The article is concerned with the customs of these people including those surrounding marriage, childbirth, menstruation etc. It’s all pretty earthy stuff, talking of what would now be called female genital mutilation, phallic symbols and so on. Bryant Mumford gives the words for various family relationships and other things and they are certainly unusual words: mwana, mwali, mtwa, wigendu, mtwa, yaya and many more. The word ‘taboo’ appears 18 times in the article, often as sex-taboo.
    I imagine that these words caused quite a stir at the time.

  14. I have no idea if this is relevant, but The Times (of London) carried a report on January 7 1931 (p9 col D) about a court case in which a publisher was being prosecuted for selling allegedly obscene books, in which a police inspector called Philpott gave evidence that he had ordered the books in question, giving the name “H. Mumford”. If it isn’t relevant, it’s a strange conjunction of time, name and subject …

  15. Crown, AJP says:

    Here, I’ve got a major contender: Catherine Mumford Booth, she not only the right vintage (1829-1890), she’s the “Mother” of the Salvation Army — wife of its founder, “General” Wm Booth — and she preached stuff like this:
    We are told, over and over again, that God wants His people to be pure, and THAT PURITY IN THEIR HEARTS IS THE VERY CENTRAL IDEA AND END AND PURPOSE OF THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST; if it is not so, I give up the whole question–I am utterly deceived. (First Address on Holiness).
    From Wiki: They began the work of The Christian Mission in 1865. William preached to the poor and ragged and Catherine spoke to the wealthy, gaining support for their financially demanding ministry. She eventually began to hold her own campaigns.
    No smoking gun, yet…

  16. Crown, AJP says:

    It’s nuts. I mean why would he have been invoking the architecture critic of The New Yorker, for God’s sake?

  17. Crown, AJP says:

    Architects don’t swear. Not much.

  18. I would never have dreamed there would be so many plausible candidates! When I read the Girvan suggestion I thought “Ah, that must be it,” but then Martin and VL suggested W. B. Mumford and that seemed convincing… Anyway, I agree that Lewis seems unlikely; he was just the only Mumford I knew of from the period.

  19. See OED s.v. mum 1, B.1, which gives an obsolete idiom “†mum for that” (latest attestation given from 1814), which may have given /mumfəð-/, whence perhaps mumford-ish /mumfəd-ɪʃ/, with the sense ‘unspeakable’.

  20. I think my W. B. publishing in 1882) and VL’s (active 1930s through 50s) are probably two distinct Mumfords.

  21. John Emerson says:

    I protests Krone’s aspersions against architectural critics. There is nothing wrong with invoking them.

  22. John Emerson says:

    I protests Krone’s aspersions against architectural critics. There is nothing wrong with invoking them.

  23. One vote against Catherine Mumford Booth here. She would have been less concerned with cursing than with The Demon Rum. Besides which I have NEVER heard anyone swear in front of the wife of a Methodist minister–she probably didn’t even know what it was.
    As far as criticizing architects–mum’s the word.

  24. Many people swear at architects, or would if they knew to do so. Notably women waiting on line for public restrooms.
    “Gender equality is three women’s rooms for every men’s room.” –Gale Cowan

  25. Mumfordish – as in the context of a synonym for taboo… as discussed in the article… could perhaps mean ‘mum – for-dish] — meaning unatterable or unmentionables..
    ‘be served with silence’ mening ‘discussion to be avoided’….
    Thats my guess .

  26. ‘mumfordish’ again could also mean ‘eat silence’ Let us not discuss…etc. And as an attempted equivalent for the term ‘taboo’ mumfordish could just mean – ‘Let us leave it OUT’ or Lets Spare it.
    veda

  27. Many people swear at architects, or would if they knew to do so. Notably women waiting on line for public restrooms.
    Big mistake, on their part. Some urgent needs can be satisfied on line; others still require action in the real world. Don’t blame the architects for that.
    Do Americans really say wait on line in that sense? Others would say wait in [a] line, or wait in a queue, or simply queue.

  28. Americans wait in line. Especially for the ladies room. The women’s line is always much longer. You would think a people-friendly designer would have figured it out by now. But no. They design those things for the plumbing connections inside the wall and not for the convenience of the people using it.
    “Mum’s the word” wasn’t really used correctly. It should be in an old black and white gangster film and they are planning the heist and they say “We’ll meet behind the docks at three o’clock, but mum’s the word.” Only they pronounce it “mum’s the woid” because their accents show they’re sneaky crooks.

  29. Re: “wait in line” vs. “wait on line” in American English: I say “wait in line”, but I’ve known people who say “wait on line”. I think it’s a regional thing, with “wait on line” being mostly in/on the Eastern Seaboard. Logically, both make sense (“in” makes sense because a line in the relevant sense is a physical and social structure composed of the people *in* it, but “on” makes sense because in geometry we speak of points *on* a line and it makes sense to generalize that to the lines we wait in), but “on” has always sounded strange to me.

  30. AA will say “wait on someone” instead of wait for someone, but my speech is strictly midwest.
    There used to be a deodorant called Mum.

  31. Oh, dear do I dare post this?
    http://www.mum.org/mumdeo.htm

  32. Crown, A.J.Pee says:

    Ha, ha, Noetica. I never noticed that. New Yorkers certainly wait on line and NY waiters wait ‘on’ you (except Lou Reed, who’s waiting ‘for’ the man.)
    Architects are known to contractors as ‘fucking architects’, as in, ‘I don’t know, you’d better ask the fucking architect’.
    If women would just all pee in the same room they wouldn’t have to stand in line so long…never mind, I can’t win this argument.

  33. AJP Crown says:

    Nijma: One vote against Catherine Mumford Booth here. She would have been less concerned with cursing than with The Demon Rum. Besides which I have NEVER heard anyone swear in front of the wife of a Methodist minister–she probably didn’t even know what it was.
    “My dear son, only a little time ago, on the top of an omnibus, was speaking to a man who was the worse for liquor, and using very improper language; trying to show him the danger of his evil, wicked course, as a transgressor of the law of God.”
    (Catherine Mumford Booth. Godliness. Ch.2. Saving Faith.)

  34. The Sewanee Review (1930) page 486 is much more promising than the reference to “Mumfordish” on page 15. Referring to Lewis Mumford’s 1929 study of Herman Melville’s life and work : Mr. Mumford vaguely hints at “a dozen possible circumstances occuring long after childhood, which may have contributed to Melville’s regression” sexually and What evidence, for example, has Mumford that Elizabeth was “timid and irresponsive as a lover”? What evidence that Melville regressed sexually?. Which suggests that in his book on Melville, Mumford talks coyly about sexual matters, hence Mumfordish. Should be simple enough to verify.

  35. Do Americans really say wait on line in that sense?
    New Yorkers do; it used to be a nice neat isogloss surrounding the city. It may have spread to a larger area in the Northeast for all I know. I knew I had become a New Yorker when it stopped sounding strange to me.

  36. One more possibility: mumfordish could have evolved colloquially somewhere and gained traction for a while, though not long and not much, based on some group’s reference to an anonymous Mumford (say, one of a group of schoolboys, or a teacher, or the janitor). This would make it nearly impossible to pin down. In other words, it’s similar to “johnson” for penis–who can know whether there’s an actual Johnson behind that?

  37. But why would Lewis Mumford’s possible coyness about using obscene words, or Catherine Mumford Booth’s intolerance of obscene words, result in a word that means “obscene”? If they were going to lend their name to a word, I would expect it to refer to taboo word avoidance, rather than taboo words themselves. I suppose it’s possible, but it seems backwards to me. I like Twain’s Mumford best of the ones proffered thus far, simply because he actually comes close to swearing, although, again, there are no actual obscenities used.

  38. John Emerson says:

    I’d like to invoke Paul Goldberger at this point.

  39. John Emerson says:

    I’d like to invoke Paul Goldberger at this point.

  40. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Goldberger is a complete wuss, you might as well invoke Kermit the Frog. Invoke a German sausage, a wiener or a frankfurter: Gombrich or Benjamin.

  41. John Emerson says:

    Christopher Hawthorne. Nicolai Ouroussoff. Lee Bey. Makoto Ueda. Herbert Muschamp. I’m invoking them en bloc.

  42. John Emerson says:

    Christopher Hawthorne. Nicolai Ouroussoff. Lee Bey. Makoto Ueda. Herbert Muschamp. I’m invoking them en bloc.

  43. “My dear son, only a little time ago, on the top of an omnibus, was speaking to a man who was the worse for liquor, and using very improper language, trying to show him the danger of his evil, wicked course, as a transgressor of the law of God.”
    Anyone who can wade through a Salvation Army tract just to glean some tidbit about Catherine Mumford Booth has more fortitude than I do, but it sort of proves my point, doesn’t it.
    The only way one could possibly curse at a Methodist minister’s wife is the same as the only way it’s possible to eat a White Castle hamburger–get stinking drunk first.
    This Mumford was making a point about likker, not language.

  44. komfo,amonan says:

    Re: “wait on/in line”: Growing up in Philadelphia, I had never heard “wait on line” in the U.S. before moving to New York. I vaguely remember hearing it in Scotland (& now I realize that I should have taken notes on the usages I heard in Scotland, instead of thinking I’d remember them forever), but whether it was out of the mouths of eastern Scots, western Scots, or Australians I cannot say.

  45. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Anyone who can wade through a Salvation Army tract just to glean some tidbit about Catherine Mumford Booth has more fortitude than I do
    That’s right. Nothing escapes me.
    but it sort of proves my point, doesn’t it.
    Not really, no.

  46. Does too.

  47. I bet you never met anyone from The Temperance Union or ever Took The Pledge. In fact, I’d bet dimes to donuts you don’t even know the words of The Pledge.

  48. But I have an unfair advantage here in being Methodist myself. Even though I’m at least ¾ Scandihoovian, the dominant Lutheran gene didn’t take.

  49. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Thanks for the list. It shows how out of touch with the American architectural scene i am that I hadn’t heard of half of them, though one seems to be a critic of Japanese poetry rather than architecture. Perhaps that was to cover certain unresolved details of your invocation. I’m sure help is on its way. I rather liked the look of Lee Bey except the buildings he was covering were so dreary, but perhaps that’s the point.
    If you want the best recent writing on buildings and cities look no further than Conrad’s blog, Varieties of Unreligious Experience. It’s in another league from your lot.

  50. John Emerson says:

    I’ll invoke the architectural critics I choose to invoke. Conrad is a most excellent person, but I do have standards and do not feel that he is suitable for invocation at this point.

  51. John Emerson says:

    I’ll invoke the architectural critics I choose to invoke. Conrad is a most excellent person, but I do have standards and do not feel that he is suitable for invocation at this point.

  52. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Well Herbert Muschamp of course is dead, but then so is Lewis Mumford. You can invoke Nicolai Ouroussoff if you want to. Be warned that I’m invoking Conrad. Makoto Ueda is a bit of a wild card as far as I’m concerned, but Conrad could beat up Nicolai Ouroussoff and your so-called Hawthorne any day of the week (blindfold).

  53. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    And what’s more, Conrad doesn’t even claim to be an architecture critic.
    The usual Sunday newspaper comment on architecture is of a pretty low standard. Even so, you might be surprised at how much attention architects pay to those columns. If critics took a broader brush to what they were writing about — strolls through the city, stuff like that, instead of just reviewing the latest downtown plate-glass development — then architects would possibly take a less narrow-minded attitude to the boundaries of the design process. I think that’s what Herbert Muschamp wanted to do at the NY Times, though I didn’t follow his column.
    On the other hand, you’re never going to find one who writes as well as Conrad, so I invoke him.

  54. I invoke Fire, son of Ormazd, most rapid of the Immortals! I invoke Mithra, the lofty, the immortal, the pure, the sun, the ruler, the quick horse, the eye of Ormazd!

  55. Ormazd can eat your architecture critics for breakfast.

  56. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Is that from a tv commercial?

  57. No, but it should be. “Worship new, improved Ormazd! He can eat your architecture critics for breakfast!”

  58. Crown, A. J.P. says:

    Not knowing anything about this I turn to Wiki, where I learn that Ormazd has something to do with Zoroastrianism but the one you really want to worship is Mazda. So I was right it is in fact a car commercial.

  59. Ahura and Mazda were once separate deities–I forget which is older, and if I remember correctly there was a gender change in there somewhere from female to male for the older one. The religions had a happy syncretism, like the Aesir and Vanir, and unlike later religions where the god of the old religion (Ahriman) became the devil of the new religion.
    If I recall correctly Mithra was a bull.
    N.C.N.

  60. If you want to invoke something Nordic, try Logi. the trickster god Loki, while traveling with Thor, once lost an eating contest with Logi, who was posing as the servant of the giant king, Útgarða-Loki. Logi turned out to be fire itself which devoured not only the food but the plates it was served on.
    N.C.N.

  61. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I can have that kind of disaster in my own kitchen any day of the week, thanks. We really need a proper place for the microwave but there’s just no room. I think I’ll stick with invoking Conrad, the wrath of Roth.

  62. Well, I am delighted to find myself being invoked so laudatorily. I know Mumford, but I must admit I haven’t heard of Emerson’s horde, so I shall have to take on good faith that I could handle Ouroussoff and Hawthorne blindfold. I’m sure I could swear better than them, at least.

  63. Holy catfish, what an invocation. A guy in Norway types the guy’s name and SHAZAM! there he is. I bet Ahuramazda can’t do that.

  64. Actually, he had to type it three times.

  65. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Ok. Now John, invoke Nicolai Ouroussoff!

  66. John Emerson says:

    I have architecture critics in reserve whom I will invoke at a time of my own choosing.
    Amongst my weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost inexhaustible supply of architecture critics.

  67. John Emerson says:

    I have architecture critics in reserve whom I will invoke at a time of my own choosing.
    Amongst my weapons are fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost inexhaustible supply of architecture critics.

  68. Why are we invoking architecture critics again? I’ve forgotten.

  69. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    According to Language, in 1934 on hearing some taboo words A. S. C. Ross, a philologist, invoked the gaunt long-haired architecture critic and mystic Lewis Mumford. One of the words may have been ‘panties’, we don’t know. Anyway, Mumford appeared and the words vanished in a puff of smoke, only to reappear seventy-five years later on a Black Forest cake at a convention of linguists in Freiburg.

  70. Oh, now I remember. Toilet design.
    Mumford must have made some unprintable comment about how long he had to wait for his wife to come out of the powder room.
    A pity the remark is now lost to posterity.

  71. A while back I posted a question on a high traffic blog about the t-word and the p-word and whether they were emotional triggers. I never got an answer, but an east coast activist and a west coast lawyer started trading more and more improbable suggestions until there was so much steam on the blog I had to back away slowly and close my browser before my laptop caught fire. Several days later lurkers were still coming online with comments, citing “the pantyfest” to prove how long they had been following the blog.

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