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?
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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

The Ultimate Victory of Tomorrow is Democracy with Education

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“There may be times when men and women in the turmoil of change lose touch with the civilized gains of centuries of educa­tion: but the gains of education are never really lost. Books may be burned and cities sacked, but truth, like the yearning for free­dom, lives in the hearts of humble men and women. The ulti­mate victory of tomorrow is with democracy, and through de­mocracy with education, for no people in all the world can be kept eternally ignorant or eternally enslaved.”

From President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address, titled “If the Fires of Freedom and Civil Liberties Burn Low in Other Lands, They Must be Made Brighter in Our Own,” delivered to the National Education Association on June 30, 1938. The address in included in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Volume 7).

What Was the First Banned Book in America?

alex atkins bookshelf booksLong before there were uptight, narrow-minded librarians and school board members that banned books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men, there were provincial, simpleminded, and holier-than-thou Puritans of Massachusetts. When they weren’t burning witches at their community bonfires (bring your smores and wicked witches!), they were burning books that were critical of their practices and beliefs. The first banned book in America was titled New English Canaan (often referred to a New Canaan) by Thomas Morton (1579-1647), a lawyer, social reformer, writer, and world-class party animal. Let’s learn the fascinating story that inspired the book.

Around 1625, Morton founded a colony named Ma-Re Mount (later called Merry Mount), meaning “Hill by the Sea”, in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. In more ways than one, Merry Mount was a rival to Plymouth Colony, led by William Bradford, to the south. Unlike the conservative Puritans of Plymouth Colony, Morton was a freewheeling playboy and um…. merrymaker, earning the title of “Lord of Misrule,” a Puritan euphemism for a “real bad ass.” The name of the colony on the hilltop came from a pun; Morton had written that the buzzkills at the Plymouth Colony were “threatening to make it a woeful mount and not a merry mount.” So clever, that rascal. In a short period of time, Morton and the Merrymounters let their freak flags fly — getting drunk at every opportunity and “dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies rather” with former indentured slaves and local Algonquin Native Americans. And if you haven’t figure it out, “frisking” was a euphemism for what Shakespeare described as “making the beast with two backs” (Othello, Act 1, Scene 1). Come to think of it, it gives Merry Mount yet another meaning. But we digress. One of the most cherished traditions was the Mayday festival, where colonists and their rowdy consorts, in various states of inebriation, danced around a tall Maypole decorated with colorful ribbons. Who says puritanical Puritans can’t have a little fun? In addition to all the booze, frolicking, and fornicating, the colonists also traded guns with Native Americans. Why was this bad? Well, the Plymouth colonists believed that dealing with Native Americans armed with guns diminished their defensive advantage and made genocide a bit more challenging.

As you can imagine, none of this sat well with the greater Puritan community. They were shocked at the depravity, debauchery, and decadence of the Merrymount colonists. Sigmund Freud would have a field day with this conflict. From a psychoanalytic perspective the communities reflect man’s inner conflict: the id vs. the superego. And in this story, Morton played the part of the id, to Bradford’s superego. In his book, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt, John Beckman, a Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, describes how most Puritans perceived Morton: “[Morton] founded a camp of free-loving bondservants within striking distance. A lover of the wilderness who consorted with Indians, a radical democrat and reckless hedonist, Morton represented an opposing side of the incipient American character, the gleefully unruly side. Cheerful, curious, horny, and lawless, he anticipated the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic. His experiment in insanely energized democracy at his anything goes Merry Mount colony, thirty miles north of Plymouth’s spiky fortress, made confetti of their Mayflower Compact. Bradford’s coup to bring it down, in the spring of 1627, counts as the first volley on the battlefield of American fun.” By 1628, the colonists from Plymouth had enough. They sent the militia, led by Myles Standish, to chop down the Maypole and arrest Morton. Morton defended himself by declaring: “Hey, this is nothing but a witch hunt! And there were very fine people on both sides!” He was arrested and eventually exiled to Maine; he died at the age of 71.

New English Canaan, published in three volumes in 1637, was Morton’s historical account of his legal battles with Plymouth Colony. And because the book was extremely critical of the Plymouth Puritans, they quickly condemned and banned it. And nothing makes a book more popular than some authoritarian person or organization that states “Don’t read this!” Fine Books Magazine, which describes a rare edition that is going to auction this month, provides an excellent summary of the book: “Blending picaresque literary flourish with historical accounts and poetic interludes, this work — composed with the help of literary friends — is an unremitting satirical attack on the Puritans as well as a joyous Jacobite romp telling a lost true story of America’s early colonial history. Morton denounces the Puritan’s policy of land enclosure and genocide of the native population while ending with a call for the ‘demartialising’ of the colonies and the creation of a multicultural New Canaan in the New World.” Copies of New English Canaan are extremely rare (only two copies have come to auction in the past three decades) and extremely valuable. Christies’ of New York expects this copy to fetch between $35,000 to $45,000 at the forthcoming auction.

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Read related posts: Best-Selling Banned Books
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For further reading: American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt by John Beckman

America’s First Banned Book and the Battle for the Soul of the Country

The Founding Father that Vandalized Shakespeare’s Chair

alex atkins bookshelf triviaFew know that one of the Founding Fathers was a museum vandal. Say what!? Historical sacrilege! First let’s identify the Founding Father. Here’s a hint — he wrote the introduction to one of the most important documents in American history: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” That, of course, is the opening sentence to the Declaration of Independence. Its author? Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson, who served as the third President of the United States, was a polymath driven by an insatiable curiosity and had a tremendous capacity for wonder. He was a voracious reader and over the years, Jefferson built a private library of about 6,500 books in the six languages that he read: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. When the British burned down the Capitol in 1814, he sold his entire collection to the library of Congress for $23,950 (imagine the great deal that the library received: priceless books for only $3.70 each!). As a student of classical literature, grammar, and rhetoric, Jefferson was a passionate admirer of the work of William Shakespeare, also a student of classical education, and of course, acknowledged as the greatest writer in the English language. “Shakespeare,” he wrote to a friend, “must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.” When asked by a friend, what books he should read, Jefferson advocated that “a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that were ever written.” Jefferson not only read and studied Shakespeare, he often attended the Bard’s plays that were performed in the playhouses of Williamsburg, Virginia. He also had the opportunity to see several plays performed in the theaters of London.

A biographer reports that in 1786, John Adams and Jefferson made a trip to England to visit Shakespeare’s childhood home at Stratford-upon-Avon. Unlike the heavily guarded and monitored tours of today, museum docents and staff took a rather cavalier attitude toward protecting Shakespeare’s valuable possessions. During the late 1700s, museum visitors would surreptitiously cut a souvenir piece of wood from one of Shakespeare’s chairs. Jefferson, being such an aficionado of the Bard, could not resist. With Adams as his lookout, he cut off a small piece of wood and hid it to take it back to his home in Monticello, where it would be cherished. Who knew Jefferson could be such a rascal? Curators of Jefferon’s estate found the piece of wood and placed it on exhibit in 2006 with a note from Jefferson: “A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare’s house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true, like the relics of the saints, it must miraculously reproduce itself.”

We can now add one additional item to Jefferson’s long list of accomplishments: lawyer, statesman, diplomat, architect, inventor, Founding Father, third President of the United States — and vandal. 

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Read related posts: Jefferson and Adams Die on Same Day
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There’s a Word for That: Galeanthropy

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEvery Halloween one will witness a predictable number of people, especially children, dressed as cats. Who hasn’t looked at a photo of a 4-year-old dressed as a kitty cat and purred “adorable?” However, all that adorableness flies (or jumps) out the window — and is replaced with deep concern — when a person harbors the delusion that he or she is a cat. Excluding the most dedicated feline cast members of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the most well-known human cat is New York socialite, Jocelyn Wildenstein, affectionately known as “Catwoman” (and pejoratively known as “The Bride of Wildenstein”) due to the many cosmetic surgeries she has undergone to look like a cat. Google her — truly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Naturally, the English language has a purr-fect word for this: galeanthropy which is defined as the mental condition of a person who believes that he or she is a cat and adopts feline habits and mannerisms (what one could call “cat-titude”). The word is derived from the Ancient Greek words galee (meaning “weasel”) and anthropos (meaning “humanity”). The word is pronounced “Ga lee AN thra pee.” So now, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. Meow.

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What is the Cost of Lies?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsOne of the most powerful scenes in HBO’s Chernobyl, a miniseries written by Craig Mazin, is the last episode, when Valery Legasov, the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute, testifies about what really happened at the nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. When Legasov stuns the courtroom with the truth, that the power plant had a design flaw, Judge Milan Kadnikov warns him about potential treason: “Professor Legasov, if you mean to suggest the Soviet State is somehow responsible for what happened, then I must warn you, you are treading on dangerous ground.” Legazov’s response and concluding narration are riveting, not only because they address the lies of Chernobyl, but they are so relevant today. In short, Chernobyl is a metaphor for the modern world. When you read Legazov’s response, think of the cost of lies of politicians, world leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, etc. at the center of all the major scandals in the news over the past few years. In every one of those situations, leaders have buried the truth in their headlong pursuit of greed and power rather than pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people, which should be the highest aspiration of true leadership:

Valery Legasov : I’ve already trod on dangerous ground. We’re on dangerous ground right now, because of our secrets and our lies. They are practically what define us. When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there, but it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid. That is how an RBMK reactor core explodes. Lies…

To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for the truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants, it doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?

For a fascinating discussion of the central issue of personal responsibility watch Oliver Thorn’s fascinating video titled “Chernobyl and Personal Responsibility” on his YouTube channel Philosophy Tube. Thorn, a philosopher and actor, began teaching philosophy in 2012 in response to the British government raising university fees 300%. In this particular video, Thorn examines the key philosophical issues involved in HBO’s Chernobyl and how the filmmakers used poetic license to reinforce certain themes. One of the most interesting discussions is the contrast between personal responsibility and intergenerational collective responsibility.

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Alcatraz by the Numbers

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIf I asked you to name the most popular landmark in the United States, what would you say? The Statue of Liberty? The Lincoln Memorial? The Washington Monument? Nope. According to a survey by TripAdvisor, the number one tourist spot in the United States is Alcatraz, (affectionately known as “The Rock”) an abandoned federal penitentiary, located in the San Francisco Bay, just a few miles from the number two tourist spot: the Golden Gate Bridge. Each year, Alcatraz Island draws more than 1.7 visitors.

Alcatraz Island was originally named La Isla de los Alcatraces (Spanish for “The Island of the Pelicans”) by Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer who was the first to sail a ship, the San Carlos, into the San Francisco Bay in 1775. In 1846, Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California, gave the island to his friend, Julian Workman, so that he would build a lighthouse on the island. Workman did not build the lighthouse, but conveyed the tile to Francis Temple, his son-in-law. Later that year, John Fremont, Military Governor of California, bought the island from Workman for $5,000 in the name of the U.S. government. Fremont recognized that the island was an ideal location for a lighthouse and a fort to protect harbor. The U.S. government did agree that Alcatraz, along with Fort Mason and Fort Lime (which was never built due to a land dispute) would form a formidable triangular defense. However the government did not believe that Fremont had the right to purchase the island. Many legal proceedings later, the U.S. government did take over title to the island without any compensation to Fremont or his heirs.

Beginning in 1853, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, now called Fort Alcatraz, mounting 105 cannons around the island and building quarters for 200 soldiers. In 1954, the first operational lighthouse on America’s West Coast was built on the southern end of the island. (It was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt in 1909.) As early as 1859, the fort, due to its remote location, began housing prisoners in the basement of the guardhouses. The first prisoners were 11 soldiers who committed crimes; then two years later, the fort was established as a military prison for prisoners of war, Union deserters, and Confederate sympathizers during the American Civil War. In 1867 a brick jailhouse was built to house military prisoners. By 1898, the prisoner population had grown from 26 to 450 inmates.

By 1915, Fort Alcatraz was officially designated as the Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. The iconic concrete cell block on the center of the island was built between 1909 and 1912 to house up to 320 prisoners. One of the unique features was that each inmate lived in his own cell, containing a sleeping cot, toilet, sink (cold water only) and small metal table (cell blocks B and C). Cell block D, known as “the hole” was used for solitary confinement; the space was larger than the typical cells but was completely dark and had not bed, table, sink, or toilet (just a hole in the floor). Two decades later, in 1933, the island officially became a federal prison, known as Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, to house some of the most recalcitrant criminals, predominantly murderers and bank robbers, in America. The mantra at Alcatraz was: “Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” For the next 29 years, Alcatraz was home to about 250 men with a prison staff of about 155. About 300 civilians lived on the island. The guards and their families lived in nine apartment buildings located near the island’s harbor. The staff also had a recreation hall, post office, small convenience store, soda fountain shop, bowling alley, and beautiful gardens.

Due to the high cost of operation, saltwater’s deteriorating impact on buildings, and impact of the island residents’ sewage into the bay, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Alcatraz to close in early 1963. Since 1972, the island is maintained and operated by the National Park Service.

Let’s take a look at this fascinating island and prison by the numbers:

Size of island: 1,675 feet by 590 feet; total area is 22 acres

Distance from closest shore: 1.25 miles

Temperature water around Alcatraz: less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit

Speed of currents around Alcatraz: 6 to 8 mph

Size of prison cells: 5 x 9 feet

Number of cells: 336

Bedtime for inmates: 9:30 pm “lights out”

Height of lighthouse: 84 feet

Range of lighthouse: 22 nautical miles

Number of lighthouse keepers (1853-1940): 14

Number of prisoners: average: 260; maximum: 320

Number or inmates over 29 years: 1,576

Number of staff: 155

Number of families living on Alcatraz: 60

Cost of rent for apartment for a prison guard: $25

Number of children that grew up on Alcatraz: 100 (they are now members of the Alcatraz Alumni Association)

Number of attempted escapes: 36 (23 of those were captures; six killed; two drowned; five went missing)

Successful escape attempts: of the 36, only 3 might have escaped successfully: John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris. The Anglin family provided cards and photos that show the prisoners many years after their escape; however, the FBI has ruled the evidence inconclusive. Thus the number of attempted escapes remains at 36, with the three aforementioned prisoners considered as part of the five missing.

Number of inmates who died at Alcatraz: 28 (15 from natural causes, 5 from suicide, 8 murdered by other inmates)

Number of books in prison library: 15,000

Number of magazine subscriptions: 75

Cost to house a prisoner at Alcatraz: $10 a day (the average at other prisons was $3)

Number of birds that the Birdman of Alcatraz kept there: 0 (the movie’s premise was a complete fiction; Rober Stroud was not allowed to keep any birds at Alcatraz)

Number of Native American activists that occupied Alcatraz (1969-71): approximately 100

Daily Activity Schedule at Alcatraz:
6:30 AM – Morning whistle. Prisoners wash and dress
7:00 AM – Prisoners enter mess hall to have breakfast
7:20 AM – Breakfast is over; prisoners report to recreation yard, work assignment, or cells
11:40 AM – Prisoners enter mess hall to have lunch
12:00 PM – Lunch is over; prisoner report to cells to be counted
12:30 PM – Prisoners assigned to work report to respective shops
4:15 PM – Workday is over
4:25 PM – Prisoners enter mass hall to have dinner
4:45 PM – Dinner is over, prisoners return to their cells
9:30 PM – Lights out

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