Bumf box

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When it comes to matters of the toilet, translators in China seem to reach for the old and arcane.  Perhaps you may recall our "Closestool Encounters" back in March.  And now witness the sign in the following photograph:

This photo was taken in a toilet at the Shin Kong Center in Beijing on December 15, 2007 by a friend of Ori Tavor, who sent it to me a couple of days ago.  Interestingly enough, it is not really a case of Chinglish since the translation is accurate, but it seems odd that the translator (or software) chose the word "bumf" for toilet paper.  To show that this usage of "bumf" is not just an isolated aberration in China, but is as widespread as "closestool" for "toilet," here is a "bumf case" for tissue paper.

Bumf turns out to be British slang, dating back to the late 19th century — the OED glosses it as "Toilet-paper; hence, paper (esp. with contemptuous implication), documents collectively".  It is short for "bum fodder," a sort of primitive version of our toilet paper, but it can also refer to printed matter, such as pamphlets, forms, or memorandums, especially of an official nature and deemed of little interest or importance. Among the OED's more striking citations are

1912 V. WOOLF Let. 16 Nov. in Woolf & Strachey Lett. (1956) 46 Is this letter written upon Bumf? It looks like it.
1930 WYNDHAM LEWIS Apes of God (1932) v. 161 Low-lid fodder or high-brow bumph!
1938 E. WAUGH Scoop II. iv. 211, I shall get a daily pile of bumf from the Ministry of Mines.

It's sometimes also spelled "bumph", as in this note from the Vancouver Courier ("Ukraine in the membrane, yo", 4/29/2009): "According to the press bumph, Spin and Pitchfork named the group's video for 'Jerk It' one of the year's best".

One wonders where and how the Chinese translators dig up these obsolete terms.  And could their predilection for them stem from squeamishness in using current English terms relating to bodily functions?  I doubt that this could be so in every case, since there are countless examples of gross scatalogical language in public places (e.g., "MANG OUT AFTER SHIT", Genitl Emen, Pubic Toilet, no pissing on the Guangzhou Metro, and so forth).


  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

    I would say very few British users of the term "bumf" in its usual (very dated) sense of "mind-numbing paperwork" are aware of its derivation and it is never now used in the sense of "toilet paper".

  2. Sili said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    Hmmm – wild stab in the dark here, but both "bumf" and "closestool" start with letters early in the alphabet. This is a very limited sample, of course, but it does seem to favour the blindly-looking-stuff-up-in-a-dictionary-of-sorts hypothesis.

    Aside: from the headline I thought this was gonna be about boomboxes – "bumf" seems a better onomatopoeia than "boom".

  3. Doc Rock said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Interesting that 手紙 in Japanese means a "letter," as in Fr. "billet".

  4. Marc Hamann said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    @Dock Rock

    The characters mean literally "hand paper". (shou3zhi3)

    You can see how you might get both "TP" and "letter" from that. ;-)

  5. jdmartinsen said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    It's machine translation — Kingsoft again, I'm afraid. The first listed result for 手纸 as late as the 2006 edition is "bumph," and the first result for 纸 itself is "bumf."

  6. mollymooly said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:11 pm

    I presume Victor Mair intends "obsolete" to refer only to the original "toilet paper" sense; as David Eddyshaw says, the "paperwork/junkmail" sense is just about current.

  7. marie-lucie said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    Doc Rock: Interesting that 手紙 in Japanese means a "letter," as in Fr. "billet".

    I don't know Japanese or Chinese, but French billet with the meaning of "letter" is definitely pre-twentieth century. Nowadays the meaning of billet is either "(euro, dollar, etc) bill" or "ticket" (for the train, airplane, etc, or for a performance). billet-doux "short love letter" is also very old-fashioned and used mostly humorously.

  8. anon. said,

    May 2, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

    David Eddyshaw: I would say very few British users of the term "bumf" in its usual (very dated) sense of "mind-numbing paperwork" are aware of its derivation and it is never now used in the sense of "toilet paper".

    Really??? I learned this word – including its original sense of "toilet paper" – a few years ago from a British guy in his 50's (my ex boss). And this is not someone I'd expect would know the shadowy past lives of old words…

  9. Adrian said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 7:28 am

    A quick check of Google News shows that the Economist, the Guardian and the Times have all used "bumf" in the last few days. It's a useful negative term for printed matter.

  10. K. M. Lawson said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

    I also found this fascinating. Last year I posted my own "bumf" sighting from Jinan, China:


    Interesting if the spread of bumf usage in China really might come from Kingsoft translation software as above commenter suggested.

  11. agnosticworkethic said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 4:40 am

    I would second jdmartinsen's explanation–my 2007 edition of Powerword offers the same suggestions (as well as, incidentally, "closestool" for 马桶). Maybe the real question is where and how Kingsoft digs up these obscure terms…

  12. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    What David Eddyshaw said. I had no idea it also meant toilet paper. In my head it only meant "promotional literature of little merit".

  13. Steve said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    Like David Eddyshaw and Ginger Yellow, for me (British, London-based) 'bumf' is current and very common for 'useless printed paper of various kinds' – often promotional, but not exclusively – and to my knowledge it is hardly ever used today to refer toilet paper. Like Anon's boss I was vaguely aware of the 'bum fodder' derivation, but if you'd asked me I;'d have probably regarded it as a folk-etymology.

  14. Vinaigrette Girl said,

    May 7, 2009 @ 7:35 am

    Bumf is current UK slang for anyone with contact with civil service or military or indeed any other formal administrative contacts. In my circle (biased by the academic slant, n = 15) 11 knew it stood for "bum fodder" and of those 11, 9 dated it to WW2, although sometimes via Dad's Army or the immortal Sod's Opera CD Come On, Lads.


    April 8, 2011 @ 9:45 am

    […] In honor of my rapidly impending trip to the United Kingdom, I decided to look up bumf in a dictionary.  It turns out to be a contraction for “bum fodder,” originally used to designate toilet paper. Interestingly, the word seems to have retained its literal meaning primarily in China. […]

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