When I was a student at Dartmouth (1961-1965), from around mid-December to mid-March, we had roughly three feet of snow on the ground much of the time, but then came the big melt, and we called it the "schlump" season. The paths across campus were so muddy that the buildings and grounds crew placed "duck boards" on the ground for us to walk on.
We never paid attention to the origins or affiliations of the word; all we knew was that this was the time of mud and mire, and "schlump" sounded just right to describe it. "Schlump" was one of scores of words I learned at Dartmouth that I didn't expect anyone back home in Ohio to understand. For that matter, I wouldn't have expected anyone outside of Hanover to comprehend many of our special expressions.
Another part of our argot was "sophomore slump", which was that period in your four years at the College when everything seemed to go to hell. At the time, little did I realize that "schlump" and "slump" were closely related words (read on).
I probably never would have written this post or even given much thought to the actual meaning and derivation of "schlump" had a friend of mine not apologized for the sloppiness of her university's administrators by referring to it as "Schlamperei" ("laziness, inefficiency, muddleheadedness"). Since I was not familiar with that word, I looked it up in Wiktionary, and that led me to Duden, where I noticed an apparent cognate, Schlampe, that looked suspiciously like that old Dartmouth word "schlump" that I was familiar with back in the early 1960s.
At that point, I turned to Merriam-Webster to see if it had an entry for "schlump". I was surprised that it did, but perplexed that it didn't mean what we Dartmouth College students meant by it:
Yiddish shlump sloppy or dowdy person
First Known Use: 1948
This didn't sound right, but the spelling was identical, and there was somehow a vague resemblance between "mud that drags you down" and "sloppy or dowdy person".
Anyway, by this point, I was already starting to become convinced that "Schlamperei" and "schlump" were probably related.
The next thing that happened in my search for the origins of "schlump" was pure serendipity. Well, not really purely serendipitous, because it was the result of reading hundreds of Google search headings. What I found was a beautiful photofacsimile of Benjamin Homer Hall's (1830-1893) wonderful A collection of college words and customs (Cambridge: John Barlett, 1851), pp. 284-5.
There is a complete, searchable file here, but since the book is in alphabetical order, it is easy to find entries in it without doing an electronic search. Here's what I found relevant to my current quest:
SLUMP. German schlump ; Danish and Swedish slump, a
hap or chance, accident, that is, a fall.
At Harvard College, a poor recitation.
SLUMP. At Harvard College, to recite badly ; to make a
In fact, he 'd rather dead than dig ; he 'd rather slump than squirt.
Poem before the Y. H. of Harv. Coll., 1849.
Slumping is his usual custom,
Deading is his road to fame. — MS, Poem.
The usual signification of this word is given by Webster,
as follows : "To fall or sink suddenly into water or mud,
when walking on a hard surface, as on ice or frozen ground,
not strong enough to bear the person"; to which he adds :
"This legitimate word is in common and respectable use in
New England, and its signification is so appropriate that no
other word will supply its place."
From this meaning, the transfer is, by analogy, very easy
and natural, and the application very correct, to a poor reci-
I love the mention of New England, because what it says about "[t]his legitimate word" is exactly how we felt toward "s[ch]lump" up there in the Granite State.
Despite having made some progress, I was still feeling a bit like John Bunyan's pilgrim who had reached to the other side of the Slough of Despond. I had read Bunyan's classic as part of my training as an English major (specialty in Middle English), and it had a great impact on me; it seemed like a metaphor for getting through Dartmouth, and indeed through life: "slough" — "muddy place," Old English sloh "soft, muddy ground," of uncertain origin. Compare Middle Low German sloch "muddy place," Middle High German sluoche "ditch." Figurative use (of moral sunkenness or Bunyan's "Slough of Despond," 1678) attested from mid-13c. (from Online Etymology Dictionary).
Now it was time to turn to colleagues who know more about Yiddish and German than I.
From a German friend:
I don't really like used/dirty snow either. The word schlump (w. u) is probably misspelled and comes from schlampig (w. a) — obvious carelessness or disorderliness.
From a German acquaintance in Frankfort:
This dictionary vs. colloquial matter is bound to get out of hand right away, here my $ 0.02: Not being a speaker of Yiddish, I suspect a handful of German residue. One could be a Schlumpf (cf. "Freq. used as a term of affectionate abuse.") as found in a well-known TV-series for children, about the adventures of some charmingly innocent, yet prank-scheming, cave dwelling gang of blue-skinned dwarfs.
Etymology has it derived from "Schlamm", which is "mud." So there is your association with anything or anybody from a disorderly background, cf. American "mud people" for SE Asians.
In German we have that connotation in "Schlampe," who is a female of a loud and very bad demeanor, a harlot. Her male counterpart would be a Schlambambel where I come from, who doesn't care about his appearance and behaves like a madman; but some 20 kms away they call that a "schlampige Frau" (adj. "schlampig").
"Duckboard" seems easier to grasp if you grew up in the country. Chickens walk up a steep ladder to get inside their shelter at night, which ducks cannot do because they are flat-footed. Slats nailed across the board help them not to slip on their way up into safety for the night.
From Kathryn Hellerstein:
In Harkavy's 1910 Yiddish-English dictionary, DER SHLUMPER is "1. the dirty trail of a dress; 2. a slovenly person." The adjective SHLUMPIK means "sluttish, slovenly, nasty."
Yiddish dictionary online says SHLUMP ; American Jewish) "a person who is stupid, foolish, inept; a person who is sloppily or poorly dressed; a careless dresser, untidy person."
I don't know if the German SCHLAMPEREI is cognate with SCHLUMPER or not.
Remarks by Paul Goldin:
The relevant dictionaries are kind of unclear about all this. Shlump and Schlamperei could be related, but as far as I can tell no one really knows.
There's no doubt that Schlamperei goes back to schlampen, "to hang limply," hence "to be disorganized in dress". Schlampe, the derived noun, means something very close to our "slattern" (also with an uncertain etymology, incidentally): an untidy woman (with sexual connotations in both cases). More common is schlampig, "messy, sloppy, lazy." You can read all about it here. Might be related to Schlamm, our word "slime"–but then again it might not be.
OED says that the Yiddish word shlump (and shlumperdik, the adjective, which is very common) might be from the German word Schlumpe, "slattern"–but the problem is that Duden doesn't even recognize a word Schlumpe. OED must be thinking of Schlampe. That's a good example of Schlamperei right there!
Wiktionary notes that the word has been borrowed into Ukrainian as well. Not a big surprise, considering that there used to be millions of Jews in the Ukraine:
One would think that some of these words must be related to "slump," but that's not so clear either. The etymology of "slump" is uncertain (sensing a theme here), and OED suggests a playful variation on "plump."
There's two problems going on: one is that I don't know of a Yiddish etymological dictionary; the other is that I suspect a lot of onomatopoeia in these words (shlump, zhlob, etc.), and once you get into onomatopoeia, there's really no way to trace etymologies anymore. (A lot of sl- words in Germanic refer to messy shit.) People in ethnic and linguistic melting pots like New York City in the early twentieth century would hear words like zhlob and our "slob" (for the record, OED derives "slob" from an Irish word meaning "slab"–I'm almost positive that's wrong), and they must have instinctively treated them as essentially the same. There is a town called Zhlobin in White Russia; my grandmother was from Zhlobin, and the joke was that someone from Zhlobin is a zhlob. Coincidence? Who knows?
Additional note by Paul (commenting on the etymology of "schlep"):
Schleppen is a very good Low German word that's cognate with High German schleifen, "to drag." Schleppen is "to drag," both in Yiddish and German.
[VHM: This word has come into English as the Yiddish-derived "schlep", both as a noun ("stupid person; loser") and a verb ("to carry; drag").]
As somewhat of an aside, several correspondents have wondered why a German metro station would have the name Schlump. I suppose it is because that area was customarily muddy or messy, but people from Elmsbüttel, Hamburg may know better.
Working toward a conclusion, permit me to quote from our dictionary of record (despite the fact that Paul seems to have caught it in an act of Schlamperei on this very word ["schlump"]).
schlump, n. slang (chiefly U.S.).
Also schloomp, shlump.
[App. a Yiddish formation; cf. Yiddish shlumperdik dowdy, cogn. w. G. Schlumpe slattern.]
A dull-witted, slow, or slovenly person; a slob; a fool. Freq. used as a term of affectionate abuse.
1948 Life 15 Mar. 23/2 Schlump is a friendlier, more sympathetic term than ‘schmo’, which has completely replaced ‘jerk’. 1968 L. Rosten Joys of Yiddish 350 That shlump can depress anyone. 1979 J. Heller Good as Gold viii. 350 Kissinger would not be recalled in history as a Bismarck‥but as an odious shlump who made war gladly. 1980 Washington Post 20 Nov. f1/1 She was the All-American schlump, the ‘she's so pretty, too bad she can't lose some weight’ working girl, the patron saint of imperfect. 1986 Daily News (N.Y.) 23 May (Suppl.) 10/1, I laughed at a poor schlump being gobbled up by a giant Venus flytrap. 1987 S. Bellow More die of Heartbreak 39 To Dad, Benn was a schlump, an incompetent.
[f. duck n.1 + board n.]
Usually pl. In the war of 1914–18, a slatted timber path laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps; also in wider use (spec. see quot. 1940). Also attrib. Hence ˈduck-boarded a., furnished with duckboards.
1917 War Illustr. 17 Mar. 109 Walking wounded are helped along the duck-boards that flank the light railways. Ibid. 14 July 467 They‥flung duck-board bridges over the Douve river. 1920 G. K. Rose 2/4th Oxf. & Bucks Lt. Infty. 31 For four miles the path lay along a single duckboard track, capsized or slanting in many places. Ibid. 72 The day was spent in‥rebuilding dug-outs or laying fresh duckboards (wooden slats to walk on in the trenches). Ibid. 73 A duck-boarded communication trench. 1925 Fraser & Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words, Duckboard glide, a common term for after-dark movements along the trenches, when secrecy and quietness was essential.‥ Duckboard harrier, a despatch ‘runner’ or messenger, whose duty took him along the duckboards in the trenches. 1926 Glasgow Herald 9 Jan. 9 Certain underground stations are feeling the effects of the flood, particularly that of Mirabeau, where duck⁓boards have been laid upon the platform. 1932 E. Bowen To North xix. 196 Lady Waters, in grey knitted wool, standing out on a duckboard. 1940 Chambers's Techn. Dict. 270/2 Duck board, a board which has slats nailed across it at intervals and is used as steps in repair works on roofs.
We've covered a lot of ground in the above discussion, some of it rather murky and mucky. By way of summary, let us survey the various definitions for "slump", as listed in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:
intr.v. slumped, slump·ing, slumps
1. To fall or sink heavily; collapse: She slumped, exhausted, onto the sofa.
2. To droop, as in sitting or standing; slouch.
a. To decline suddenly; fall off: Business slumped after the holidays.
b. To perform poorly or inadequately: The team has been slumping for a month.
a. To sink or settle, as into mud or slush.
b. To slide down or spread out thickly, as mud or fresh concrete.
1. The act or an instance of slumping.
2. A drooping or slouching posture: read defeat in the slump of his shoulders.
3. A sudden falling off or decline, as in activity, prices, or business: a stock market slump; a slump in farm prices.
4. An extended period of poor performance, especially in a sport or competitive activity: a slump in a batting average.
5. See grunt.
[Probably of Scandinavian origin; akin to Norwegian slumpa, to slump.]
It is remarkable how many of the connotations of "schlump" are included among the definitions for "slump" in AHD. But what is even more noteworthy, to me at least, is that "slump" by 1851 — and undoubtedly long before that, since Webster, as quoted by Benjamin Homer Hall, treats the New England usage as well-established and indispensable — already meant what "schlump" did over a century later when I was schlepping through the mud on the Hanover Plain. To me, that's the biggest linguistic mystery of all: how "slump" of pre-1851 times seems to have reverted a hundred years later to what would appear to be an earlier Germanic form. In truth, while "schlump" has a more German-looking guise than "slump", they're both Germanic. So far as the Hanover Plain and New England in general go, compared to "slump", "schlump" is a relative latecomer.
[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer, Lila Gleitman, Nancy Steinhardt, Paul Rakita Goldin, Heidi Krohne, Michael Carr, David Moser, Julie Wei, Stefan Krasowski, John Rohsenow, and Bernd]