There’s A Word for That: Mumpsimus

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt is on display just about every day on the news coming out of Washington, D.C.: seemingly intelligent, well-educated individuals who repeat information that has been objectively proven false. Although some refer to it as the Trump Effect, or the Giuliani Effect, there is an actual term for this: mumpsimus. Pronounced “MUMP suh mus,” the primary meaning of the word is adherence to or persistences in an erroneous use of language, practice, or belief out of habit or stubbornness or — let’s not sugarcoat it — just plain stupidity. The secondary meaning is an individual who persists using a mistaken practice, statement, or belief. The third meaning is an error to which one adheres to even after it has been completely debunked.other 

We find the origin of the word in a story attributed to Desiderius Erasmus in a letter to Henry Bullock, an English correspondent, in 1516. The story goes like this: a Catholic priest had a peculiar habit of using the wrong word when he was reciting the post communion prayer. Back in those days, mass was celebrated in Latin. The priest should have been saying “Quod in ore Sumpsimus” which means “which we have taken into the mouth.” Instead of “sumpsimus” the priest used the word “mumpsimus,” which is a nonsense word; it has no meaning. Such a substitution of words for a word that sounds similar is referred to as an eggcorn or a mondegreen. It is not clear why he used this nonsense word — perhaps he was illiterate or perhaps he was reading a corrupted text (it was well known that scribes had introduced errors into Scripture and missals — things that drove Erasmus and church reformers nuts). One day, a learned man advised the priest to correct his mistake. However, the priest was not moved by the facts, and responded rather defensively, explaining that he had been using that word for more than 20 years. He famously stated, “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.” Modern translation: “I will not change my old errors for your new facts,” a variation of the tired Trumpian refrain “Fake news!” to counter verifiable, objective truth.

A year later, Richard Pace, an English humanist scholar, came across the letter in a published edition of Erasmus’ letters. He enjoyed the story a great deal and in a letter to Erasmus, wrote: “They ought to be satisfied by your story of our mass-priest and his mumpsimus for sumpsimus.”

The word appears for the first time in a book in 1530: Practice of the Prelates (1530) by William Tyndale: “But all the chancellors of England (say men) which be all lawyers, and other doctors mumpsimuses of divinity were called up suddenly to dispute the matter (under color to condemn Bilney and Arthur heard I say) which is their old cast and subtlety to pretend a contrary thing, and to cast a mist before the eyes of the people, to hide their juggling; that no man should once surmise whereabout they went.”

The most famous use of the word was by King Henry VIII, during a speech on Christmas Eve, 1545, at the State Opening of Parliament. Henry said: I see and hear daily, that you of the clergy preach one against another, teach, one contrary to another, inveigh one against another, without charity or discretion. Some be too stiff in their old mumpsimus, other be too busy and curious in their new sumpsimus. Thus, all men almost be in variety and discord, and few or none do preach, truly and sincerely, the word of God, according as they ought to do.”

In a his fascinating essay on the origins of the word (titled “Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus: The Intellectual Origins of a Henrician Bon Mot”), Peter Marshall adds, “In short, ‘mumpsimus’ was part of the currency of humanist wordplay, a pointedly referential Latinate joke, which may have appealed particularly in the English setting because of its suggestion of mummering or mumming, terms which meant both muttering or mumbling, and the disguising and play-acting associated with mummers’ plays. To humanists, it was a versatile weapon of ridicule, though one which had been forged from their characteristic disdain for the ignorant mass of the parish clergy. Impatience with clerical shortcomings was de rigueur among the circle of Erasmus’ acquaintance in early sixteenth-century England, with figures like Thomas More and John Colet arguing that what the Church needed was fewer priests and better ones… It was these transferable properties of the mumpsimus metaphor which help explain its attraction for the first generation of English evangelical reformers. Like the humanists, early reformers had nothing but contempt for the ‘Sir John Lack-Latins’ among the parish clergy, mumbling their matins without understanding.”

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Read related posts: What is a Mondegreen?
Words Related to How We Process Words
What is a Malaphor?

For further reading: Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 52, No. 3, July 2001: “Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus: The Intellectual Origins of a Henrician Bon Mot” by Peter Marshall


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