A couple of years ago the indefatigable ktschwarz linked to Ben Yagoda’s 2011 Slate essay on why Americans think bumbershoot is British, but I suspect not many Hatters saw the comment, and although I did, I had entirely forgotten it and was freshly surprised when Ben linked to it on FB: “What? It’s not Britspeak?” said I (in my hypothetical internal monologue) and clicked through to read the very interesting details:

In my recent Slate article about Americans using more Britishisms, I wondered aloud, “Why have we adopted laddish while we didn’t adopt telly or bumbershoot?” More than one English person responded to this query with another: “Bumbershoot? What do you mean, bumbershoot?”

I told them I had always thought of this funny term for umbrella as one of those words, like cheerio and old man, that the stage Englishman is required to say. My wife had the same impression. But when I looked into the matter, I learned that we were apparently misinformed. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word as “originally and chiefly U.S. slang.” And the digital archive of the Times of London, comprising 7,696,959 articles published between 1785 and 1985, yields precisely zero hits for bumbershoot.

As late as 1933, there was no British association. That year the New York Times ran a short editorial praising bumbershoot as “a term that drips with poetry and magic” and referring to it as “the mystical name, the children’s name, for an umbrella.” (And can we lament for a second that the Times editorial-page prose style no longer drips with poetry and magic?) Some days later, R.A. McGlasson wrote a letter to the editor saying that the word was commonly used in his Dutchess County, N.Y. childhood 50 years earlier; another correspondent, Louis Margolis, reported he first heard it while “spending a summer on a Connecticut farm in New London County at the tender age of ten or eleven years.”

So were my wife and I crazy? Further investigations suggested not (or at least not for this particular reason). In 1953 (approximately the year of our birth), Time magazine ran a review of The Little Emperors, Alfred Duggan’s historical novel about Roman Britain, and was clearly thinking the way we did: “As an extra dividend, the book is clearly intended for reading as an oblique comment on the British character, and especially on the modern British bureaucracy. Author Duggan seems to suggest that, given a bowler and bumbershoot to go with his tidy, official face, Felix might patter along Downing Street without winning a second glance.” Five years later, the same magazine noted: “British Mystery Writer Agatha Christie, 66, chugged up the sheer Acropolis, posed—looking not unlike her own fictional Miss Marple with bumbershoot and catchall—beneath the world’s most spine-tingling marble slab: the entablature of the Parthenon.” […]

My research has actually led me to propose a year when bumbershoot changed from U.S. regional slang to presumed Britishism: 1939. The year before, at the Munich Conference, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s was invariably depicted holding a (furled) umbrella, in the manner of a saint and his icon. The imagery suggested a weaponlike thing that was not and would not be used as a weapon, hence its aptness and its stickiness. The following year, Chamberlain traveled to Rome to try, unsuccessfully, to apply some diplomatic pressure to Mussolini. And the New York Times ran a feature that reproduced several editorial cartoons about Chamberlain’s mission. Every one showed him with an umbrella. The overall caption was, “Mr. Chamberlain’s ‘bumbershoot’ provides inspiration for British and American cartoonists.”

I hypothesize that bumbershoot became a faux Britishism because of a confluence of factors. First, the incredibly intense association of Neville Chamberlain with umbrellas. Second, the well-documented fondness of the English for umbrellas, in part due to the fact that it rains a lot there. Third, the fact that bumbershoot sort of sounds British. And fourth, the presence of an actual British slang term for umbrella, brolly. (If Eskimos have however many hundred words for snow, surely the British have at least three for for umbrella!)

As it happens, the OED revised their entry in 2018; the first citation is from 1876 (The fall was immense and he put his bumbershoot down to catch himself. Chester [Pennsylvania] Times 18 December 6/1), and the etymology is:

< bumber-, humorous alteration of umbr- (in umbrella n.) + ‑shoot, probably an alteration of ‑chute (in parachute n.; compare chute n.²).

(The Notes section adduces “the forms bumberella, bumbrella in representations of regional and colloquial U.S. speech, showing similar alteration of the first syllable of umbrella n.”)

Incidentally, Ben posted it in connection with his forthcoming book Gobsmacked! The British Invasion of American English, which I’m sure will be well worth reading — don’t miss it if you can.


  1. “What? It’s not Britspeak?”

    No. This is the first time this Brit has come across it. Agatha Christie (or her characters) with umbrella/sunshade/parasol I can well imagine — indeed I’ve taken tea in the hotel in Harrogate that she disappeared to. (You’d be well advised to take an umbrella with you there in December.)

  2. OED2 did not include bumbershoot. It included umbershoot because of James Joyce, but did not know what it meant.

  3. ktschwarz says

    Yes, even in the 2018 revision, the OED missed the relationship of “bumbershoot” to “umbershoot” (a form that can be found from 1912 in Google Books); the latter entry is still as Burchfield wrote it. Many Ulysses annotations gloss “umbershoot”, but I don’t know if they’d been published in Burchfield’s time.

    As an example of the muddle you can get into if you assume Burchfield was omniscient and don’t check any other sources, in a recent book on literary nonsense called Silliness: A Serious History by Peter Timms, the author ruminates:

    My parents used to jokingly refer to an umbrella as an umbershoot. That it came from Ulysses would have meant nothing to them. How is it that a word can migrate from a banned avant-garde novel to a philistine lower middle-class Melbourne household in just a couple of decades?

    Of course, the answer is “it didn’t”. Maybe his parents had some American connections.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s not Britspeak?

    Cor, strike a light! Vem yanks call a gamp a bumbershoot! Ooda faughtit, eh?

  5. I have a recollection that one of the songs sung by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins includes ‘bumbershoot’ — a fake British word to go with his very fake ‘cockney’ accent.

  6. “Why have we adopted laddish while we have not…?”

    Lolwut? “Laddish”?

    So many people seem to think the random things that happen in their little circles are relevant to The Way We Live.

    If a writer is going to use the first person plural this way, the publication should be required to put it in the headline so I know to ignore the whole thing.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    I am gratified to see that my channeling of Bert was not unrecognised.

    Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins has resulted in hours of innocent merriment for generations of Brits, and I cherish its memory.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Can’t say I remember encountering him in my own boyhood, but wikipedia has more details than you may need on the bumbershoot-wielding https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinky_Pinkerton alluded to in the Yagoda piece.

    Those with memories of the Cold War may recall the sad 1978 incident in which the Communists may have exploited the British love of brollies by using a poisoned one to murder the Bulgarian dissident emigre Георги Иванов Марков in the very heart of London. Indeed, right above the waters of the Thames as the victim was walking across Waterloo Bridge.

  9. Curses! I fell victim to ancient Welsh mind tricks!

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    These are not the umbrellas you are looking for.

  11. Makes me think of a cumbersome blunderbuss.

  12. The Bumbershoot Festival in Washington State has had this name since 1973, says WP. Washington prides itself on its rain.

  13. Chamberlain’s ‘bumbershoot’” – can’t it simply be a reference to its size?

  14. Kate Bunting says

    ‘Gamp’ used to be a British term for an umbrella (from the Dickens character, drunken midwife ‘Sairey’ Gamp, who always carried a large one). I have occasionally heard ‘umbergamp’, a sort of hybrid term (mentioned in https://www.sheffieldforum.co.uk/topic/363144-sheffieldish-words-amp-phrases/page/122/ – comment by ‘Duffems’).

  15. Stu Clayton says

    These are not the umbrellas you are looking for.

    It is slightly disconcerting that DE appears to be familiar with popular “memes”, which by definition are capable of being understood by ordinary, media-savvy people.

    I have only indirect, non-privileged access to such things. I can often smell a meme, but have to search the ‘net for its provenance, using what I feel to be the template or structure (in this case, what remains after omitting “umbrellas”). Here it was Star Wars.

    On the other hand DE deploys unpopular memes in which, nevertheless, quotes from Lucretius and Auden occur with greater frequency than others. aI use these parameters to guide the Google search, which usually performs just as aI expect.

    On the ‘net, nobody knows who aI am.

  16. > poisoned one to murder the Bulgarian dissident emigre

    I’m a year or two young for this. As a result, I thought the poisoned umbrella was just a comic meme on Get Smart and the Boris and Natasha segments of Bullwinkle.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    I thought the poisoned umbrella was just a comic meme on Get Smart and the Boris and Natasha segments of Bullwinkle.

    It may well have been, which was why the Russians chose it – to deflect suspicion from themselves. Bullwinkle is known as a source of visionary evil.

  18. David L: As Ben Yagoda’s piece mentions, the movie where Dick Van Dyke sings about a “bumbershoot” was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which had the same songwriters as Mary Poppins — a pair of Americans. Michael Quinion, in a World Wide Words entry on “bumbershoot”, is another Englishman who’d never heard of it before.

    Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is also responsible for a song that’s even more wrong, etymologically: “Posh!”, with lyrics “Port out, starboard home, posh with a capital P-O-S-H, posh”. Never trust a songwriter!

  19. Ah, thank you. I blame a misfire of DE’s Welsh sorcery.

    That silly POSH etymology comes up frequently. I do my best to debunk it but it hasn’t died out yet.

  20. It never will. The POSH ye have always with you.

  21. The rest of us, the sophs, are never spoken about. Not even a Spice Girl named for us. Such is the way of the world.

  22. I mentioned the Markov assassinationa few years ago. Interestingly, two weeks ago a friend made a remark about watching out for poisoned umbrellas, and I wasn’t sure whether it was meant as a reference to Markov’s death or to silly fictional umbrella weapons.

  23. Ben needs to learn that “The Times” or the “Times”, unless qualified (e.g. the OED’s citation of “Chester [Pennsylvania] Times”), means “The Times” of London, which is not, and never was, the “Times of London”.

  24. Slate is not a British publication. Outside the United Kingdom, readers may interpret “the Times” as some other newspaper published closer to their home, even if that paper’s full title includes some geographical element. That said, I would argue that “the Times of London” should have read “the Times of London”; but that may be a copyeditor’s mistake rather than Ben Yagoda’s. Other styles include “the Times (of London)” or “the [London] Times“. Whether to include the “The” in the title is also a matter of style; Slate excludes it, as also evinced by “That year the New York Times ran…” (as opposed to “That year The New York Times ran…”).

    OTOH “and The [London] Times said…” would be klunky.

  25. Yes, “the Times of London” should definitely have read “the Times of London” — I had actually meant to mention that error in the post but forgot. And yes, it’s probably a copyeditor’s mistake rather than Ben Yagoda’s.

    I think you mean “The [London] Times” (no ital on London), which is accepted style for bibliographies and the like. I have used it many times in my career as a copyeditor.

  26. no ital on London — indeed; less klunky to read, but more so to type.

    Whereas I have long noted that the London paper’s web domain is thetimes.co.uk, I have just discovered that times.co.uk does not even redirect there, and is available to purchase.

  27. David Marjanović says

    …while the Natural History Museum does not include its article in its name, despite being the one of London.

    (They do have the modicum of sense to prefix their specimen numbers with “NHMUK”. But of course they’re far from the only natural-history museum in the entire UK, or for that matter in England…

    …and used to be called “British Museum (Natural History)”, with parentheses; specimen numbers with “BM(NH)”.)

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