I’ve just finished Maugham’s Ashenden stories (see this thread), and in the last one I found a word even better than Tingel-tangel: “Oh, come off it. Templeton isn’t the sort of chap to play bumble-puppy bridge with a girl like that unless he’s getting something out of it, and she knows a thing or two, I bet.” Bumble-puppy bridge! Of course I ran to the OED, and was not disappointed (the entry is from 1888, though new citations have been added):

Etymology: Derivation unknown. Compare bumble v.2 [“To blunder, flounder”]

a. An old game resembling bagatelle, but played out of doors with marbles or ‘dumps’ of lead; nine-holes.

b. Applied humorously to whist played unscientifically. Also of bridge. Also attrib.
1801 J. Strutt Glig-gamena Angel-ðeod iii. vii. 242 (note) .
1884 Sat. Rev. 25 Oct. 520 ‘Bumble puppy’ or domestic whist at shilling points.
1885 Longman’s Mag. 6 597 A common form of home whist—called by Pembridge, Bumblepuppy.
1936 E. Culbertson Contract Bridge Compl. i. 34 Persons who claim they ‘play no conventions’ either play bumble-puppy Bridge or do play conventions that are tacitly understood.
1947 W. S. Maugham Creatures of Circumstance 104 Templeton isn’t the sort of chap to play bumble-puppy bridge with a girl like that unless he’s getting something out of it.

c. A game in which a ball slung to a post is struck with a racket by each player in opposite directions, the object being to wind the string entirely round the post; also, the post so used.
1900 L. B. Walford One of Ourselves xiv, They had had a great game of ‘bumble-puppy’.
a1918 J. T. B. McCudden Five Years in R.F.C. (1919) xii. 227 We had a wonderful game called ‘Bumble-puppy’, which one played with tennis rackets.
1940 M. Sadleir Fanny by Gaslight i. 43 One of the boys seized a chance to occupy the bumble-puppy… It was great fun hitting the ball in its string-bag so that it wound tightly round the pole.

I was curious about the citation “J. Strutt Glig-gamena Angel-ðeod iii. vii. 242 (note),” so I looked it up; fortunately Google Books has the volume in question (it’s also at the Internet Archive), and we can see the note itself:

Hence some say the game of nine-holes was called ‘Bubble the Justice,’ on the supposition that it could not be set aside by the justices, because no such pastime was named in the prohibitory statutes ; others give this denomination to a different game : the name by which it is now most generally known is ‘Bumble-puppy;’ and the vulgarity of the term is well adapted to the company by whom it is usually practised.

It seems clear that this belongs under sense a rather than b. At any rate, a delightful word; anybody familiar with it?


  1. I encountered it in Brave New World where Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy is one of the games that keeps the population distracted, but I don’t have any idea how it might be played. Somehow it might involve a carousel or a maypole.

  2. I knew of the term, but not really what it meant, only because I’d come across Bumblepuppy Days in a catalog of bridge books.

    This is how the foreword begins:

    While unfamiliar today, the word ‘bumblepuppy’ was well-known to
    whist players and early bridge players. It was used to describe three
    things: a table composed of poor whist players, a poor play at whist, or
    a poor whist player. (Some writers felt the proper word when referring
    to poor players was ‘bumblepuppist’.) The term became very popular
    after the classic book Whist; or Bumblepuppy? appeared in 1880, defining
    the term as follows: ‘Bumblepuppy is persisting to play whist,
    either in utter ignorance of all known principles, or in defiance of them,
    or both.’

  3. Forster used it in A Room with a View with reference to a silly version of tennis:

    Playing bumble-puppy with Minnie Beebe, niece to the rector, and aged thirteen—an ancient and most honourable game, which consists in striking tennis-balls high into the air, so that they fall over the net and immoderately bounce; some hit Mrs. Honeychurch; others are lost. The sentence is confused, but the better illustrates Lucy’s state of mind, for she was trying to talk to Mr. Beebe at the same time.

    The original game of “bumble-puppy or nine-holes” (1806) is shown here:


  4. P.S. Description

    Youths playing Bumble Puppy, or Nine Holes near the Templa of Vesta, Rome, Italy. To set up the game, the young men cut nine holes in the turf large enough to take the ball. Money is staked and if a player does not pitch the ball into a hole, he loses his stake. When a player pitches the ball into the centre hole, he takes all the money staked and a new game is begun. Hand coloured lithograph from ‘Italian Scenery, Manners and Customs’ by Buon Airetti (London, 1806).

    Aha, we’ve got a new lead. Time to check what they called the game in Italian.

  5. The book can be found on Google Books, and the game is described in more detail there. The text is bilingual, English and French.

    Les jeunes garçons q’on voi s’amusent à jouer à la fossette … On connoit ce jeu en Angleterre sous le nom de Bumble-Puppy …

    Fossette in this sense is new to me (I knew it only as ‘dimple’), but my big French dictionary refers to the game (jouer à la fossette), and so does this online dictionary:


    The game was called that already in the 15th c.: http://tinyurl.com/h3xls88

    In Italian, it’s gioco delle fossette

    It was already played by the Romans, who did not cut holes in the turf with knives but used specially made holes in marble pavements. Examples here:


    I have no idea what it was called in Latin, but the French and Italian connections throw no light on the origin of bumble-puppy.

  6. Aha, it turns out we discussed bagatelle back in 2007. (The reference to “nine holes” jogged my memory.)

  7. ə de vivre says

    I’ve only encountered ‘bagatelle’ in the sense of the dairy/fruit/cake dessert that I think was originally made with panna cotta, but has been proletarianlized with dairy-adjacent-whipping-product into something just a step above un pain-sandwich.

  8. marie-lucie says

    la fossette

    I have never heard of the game, but the word is a diminutive of la fosse ‘pit’. On a face (especially that of a baby or young person) it is a dimple, a tiny pit in the flesh, especially the cheeks, and in the old games described it referred to small holes (Italian plural le fossette) dug in the ground or in flagstones in preparation for a game of throwing some object into them.

    No help for bumble-puppy!

  9. I’ve only encountered ‘bagatelle’ in the sense of the dairy/fruit/cake dessert

    For me it means primarily something unimportant. Perhaps the specialization to a desert is on the same pattern as the specialization of trifle to a dessert.

  10. Bagatelle for me is the game a bit like pinball without flappy bits (although unlike pinball it does have pins!)

  11. So bumble-puppy can be a game like tetherball or tether-tennis a.k.a. swingball. It sounds like it’s a free-floating name that attaches to games.

  12. I wonder if the connection to card games is that a bumblepuppist is a player who puts down a card more or less at random and hopes to get lucky.

  13. Am I the only one here who thinks of music when I read the word ‘bagatelle’? I had a vague awareness that the word had other meanings (pastry?), and was sure that these implied triviality or at least unseriousness, but I knew it mostly from Beethoven’s collections of bagatelles for solo piano, Op. 33 (7 of them), 119 (11 more), and 126 (6 more) – some of my favorite Beethoven. The only other musical bagatelle I know of is Liszt’s ‘Bagatelle San Tonalité’.

  14. Wikipedia’s primary Bagatelle article is about the “table game and . . . predecessor of the pinball machine”. Their disambiguation page gives 13 more meanings, none of them pastries.

  15. J. W. Brewer says

    “Play[ing] bumble-puppy bridge with a girl” reminds me of the vintage Letterman top 10 list of expressions that sound like double entendres even if they arent: http://www.republibot.com/content/things-sound-dirty-probably-arent

  16. Am I the only one here who thinks of music when I read the word ‘bagatelle’?

    It’s interesting — back when I listened almost exclusively to classical music (over 40 years ago now!), that would have been a prominent sense for me as well, but though I still hear a fair amount of classical music (plug: WFCR, my local station, has the best classical programming I’ve ever heard, with interesting information about every composer and lots of unfamiliar pieces), that sense of the word has receded into a dusty side room of my brain.

  17. Für Elise is formally “Bagatelle No. 25”.

  18. marie-lucie says

    Beethoven seems to have been the most prolific composer of Bagatelles: short, “trifling” pieces which did not have to be constrained by a specific format, unike sonatas or symphonies.

  19. I remember having a bagatelle-playing device as a child, now that I think of it: it was perhaps a foot (30 cm) long and not as wide, with a spring-loaded plunger for shooting balls (which always remained within the device) up to the top, where they would roll down.

  20. It should have played “Für Elise” when you pushed the plunger. The three people who got the joke would really have enjoyed it.

  21. From Our Dad, by John Lennon:

    At last he finished packing all,
    His iron hand as well.
    He even packed the penis
    What he’d won at bagatell.

    (Published in Spaniard In The Works. Of all the mean-spirited, funny poems Lennon wrote, this is the meanest and possibly the funniest.)

  22. The game was entirely mechanical, and did not contain music-box innards. I had a lot of fun with it anyhow.

  23. From Brave New World:

    The Director and his students stood for a short time watching a game of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Twenty children were grouped in a circle round a chrome steel tower. A ball thrown up so as to land on the platform at the top of the tower rolled down into the interior, fell on a rapidly revolving disk, was hurled through one or other of the numerous apertures pierced in the cylindrical casing, and had to be caught.

    “Strange,” mused the Director, as they turned away, “strange to think that even in Our Ford’s day most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two and a few sticks and perhaps a bit of netting, imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It’s madness. Nowadays the Controllers won’t approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games.”

    This actually sounds like fun too, though decidedly non-competitive. In any case, the satire is too broad: game tech like boards and their mobile tokens, dice, and spinners have been around a long time.

    Here’s a bit from a Quote Investigator article, originally published in Notes & Queries in 1866:

    If you want the rules of Bumblepuppy you must invent them yourself, for I believe no one knows what they are. I have often made inquiries about the game at the ‘The Dublin Man-of-War,’ and invariably I have discovered that nothing is known about it, except that its name is Bumblepuppy, and that it influences to a certain, or rather uncertain extent, the absorption of beer.

    The name of the inventor is lost (if he ever had one); but the people of Ewell rather hold to the opinion that it never had an inventor, and I am under the impression that they believe it to have come down from the clouds, and taken up its abode at ‘The Dublin Man-of-War’ as a mystery on a large scale,—a thing touching which history says nothing, and which can only be defined as an unfathomable thingummy.

  24. So it’s a precursor of Calvinball.

  25. A Separate Peace:

    “We could figure out some kind of blitzkrieg baseball,” I said.

    “We’ll call it blitzkrieg ball,” said Bobby.

    “Or just blitzball,” reflected Finny. “Yes, blitzball.” Then, with an expectant glance around, “Well, let’s get started,” he threw the big, heavy ball at me. I grasped it against my chest with both arms. “Well, run!” ordered Finny. “No, not that way! Toward the river! Run!” I headed toward the river surrounded by the others in a hesitant herd; they sensed that in all probability they were my adversaries in blitzball. “Don’t hog it!” Finny yelled. “Throw it to somebody else. Otherwise, naturally,” he talked steadily as he ran along beside me, “now that we’ve got you surrounded, one of us will knock you down.”

    “Do what!” I veered away from him, hanging on to the clumsy ball. “What kind of a game is that?”

    “Blitzball!” Chet Douglass shouted, throwing himself around my legs, knocking me down.

    “That naturally was completely illegal,” said Finny. “You don’t use your arms when you knock the ball carrier down.”

    “You don’t?” mumbled Chet from on top of me.

    “No. You keep your arms crossed like this on your chest, and you just butt the ball carrier. No elbowing allowed either. All right, Gene, start again.”

    I began quickly, “Wouldn’t somebody else have possession of the ball after—”

    “Not when you’ve been knocked down illegally. The ball carrier retains possession in a case like that. So it’s perfectly okay, you still have the ball. Go ahead.”

    There was nothing to do but start running again, with the others trampling with stronger will around me. “Throw it!” ordered Phineas. Bobby Zane was more or less in the clear and so I threw it at him; it was so heavy that he had to scoop my throw up from the ground. “Perfectly okay,” commented Finny, running forward at top speed, “perfectly okay for the ball to touch the ground when it is being passed.” Bobby doubled back closer to me for protection. “Knock him down,” Finny yelled at me.

    “Knock him down! Are you crazy? He’s on my team!”

    “There aren’t any teams in blitzball,” he yelled somewhat irritably, “we’re all enemies. Knock him down!”

    I knocked him down. “All right,” said Finny as he disentangled us. “Now you have possession again.” He handed the leaden ball to me.

    “I would have thought that possession passed—”

    “Naturally you gained possession of the ball when you knocked him down. Run.”

    So I began running again. Leper Lepellier was loping along outside my perimeter, not noticing the game, taggling along without reason, like a porpoise escorting a passing ship. “Leper!” I threw the ball past a few heads at him.

    Taken by surprise, Leper looked up in anguish, shrank away from the ball, and voiced his first thought, a typical one. “I don’t want it!”

    “Stop, stop!” cried Finny in a referee’s tone. Everybody halted, and Finny retrieved the ball; he talked better holding it. “Now Leper has just brought out a really important fine point of the game. The receiver can refuse a pass if he happens to choose to. Since we’re all enemies, we can and will turn on each other all the time. We call that the Lepellier Refusal.” We all nodded without speaking. “Here, Gene, the ball is of course still yours.”

    “Still mine? Nobody else has had the ball but me, for God sakes!”

    “They’ll get their chance. Now if you are refused three times in the course of running from the tower to the river, you go all the way back to the tower and start over. Naturally.”

    Blitzball was the surprise of the summer. Everybody played it; I believe a form of it is still popular at Devon.

  26. Alon Lischinsky says

    @ə de vivre:

    something just a step above un pain-sandwich.

    anything involving Cheez Whiz sounds terrible, but there’s no reason sandwich loaves should always be of this sort. Swedish smörgåstårta can be a very fine thing indeed.

  27. Those scare me. But it’s been a while since workplace celebrations here — media company in Stockholm — have involved such, it’s more gateaux or canapées now.

    Would the real bagatelle be more like the Danish lagkage (“layer cake”): a split round sponge cake layered with custard or (better) whipped-cream-with-strawberries, topped with more cream or sugar glaze. For the writing of the names of birthday celebrating children upon, and the sticking of appropriate numbers of party candles in?

    (The terror stems from my first encounter with the former, expecting goodness and getting sliced ham with mayo).

  28. marie-lucie says

    Lars: gateaux or canapées

    I suggest gâteaux, but as I said before, I am old-fashioned that way.

    The other word is le canapé (for both the snack and the sofa).

  29. But canapés are savoury (here), I can eat enough to skip dinner — I go into glycemic shock if I try that with gâteaux.

  30. Trond Engen says

    Da. lagkage “layer cake” = No. bløtkake “softcake” = No. dial. lagkake. You may try changing the search settings to confirm the identities. And to get a sense of Lars’ glycemic shock.

    Edit: Can I trick the software into accepting two links?

    New edit: What about three?

    Final edit: You may now not edit the search settings.

  31. Trond Engen says

    Da. lagkage “layer cake” = No. bløtkake “softcake” = No. dial. lagkake. You may try changing the search settings to confirm the identities. And to get a sense of Lars’ glycemic shock.

  32. Trond Engen says

    That is, I tried adding links by editing. Seemed to work. Didn’t.

  33. I added the text of your original comment as sent to me by e-mail (which the software does with all comments); if there are missing links, let me know and I will add them.

  34. Trond Engen says

    Heh. Thanks. My edited comment with three links is still awaiting moderation just above the one you inserted. Is it completely lost? No big loss, granted, since it was a failed attempt anyway.

  35. It’s not awaiting moderation, it’s just not there. If you’ve got the links, give ’em to me and I’ll insert ’em.

  36. Dammit, it was awaiting moderation, and I just approved it, and it’s still not showing up! WTF, WP?

  37. Trond Engen says

    Thanks, but the missing links are no big deal (just the same search with different settings), the missing comment is what’s interesting. When I edit links into a comment, the edited comment is shown on my screen as awaiting moderation without actually being added to the moderation queue.

  38. Trond Engen says

    Oh, now it’s there. Well, here anyway, without moderation.

  39. marie-lucie says

    I used to see references to “moderation” but haven’t seen any lately. On the other hand, the time between posting the comment and seeing it come up at the top of the list and from achieving that position to actually appearing on the screen, varies quite a bit, so I don’t worry about any delays any more.

  40. Here’s a bit of dialogue from The Lady Eve:

    I hope your niece doesn’t think I am a half-wit

    Oh, bumble-puppy! Why she’s used to having young men fall for her
    It’s interesting to see here that the usage is of the type poppycock…is to because of the random factor?

  41. It’s such an irresistible word people throw it in wherever they can. (Also, I highly recommend The Lady Eve to anyone who hasn’t seen it — an utterly delightful movie.)

  42. Jean-Pierre Metereau says

    I’ve just used Centrifugal Bumble-puppy as an item in a multiple-choice quiz on games in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I didn’t know it could be used in this sense, but now that I do, I’ll use it every chance I get.

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