Mumfordishness: an appeal

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In 1934, the philologist A. S. C. Ross wrote a review of the 1933 Oxford English Dictionary Supplement (Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 35: 128-132) in which he referred to taboo words as "mumfordish" vocabulary. He used the same word again in the same year in a short note in Transactions of the Philological Society (volume 33, issue 1, page 99), and again made it clear that for him it was a synonym for "taboo" or "obscene" as applied to lexical items. Charlotte Brewer of Oxford University, an expert on the history of the OED (author of Treasure-house of the Language: The Living OED and creator of the marvellous Examining the OED website), mentioned in a paper presented at the ISLE-1 conference in Freiburg last week that she was baffled by the word mumfordish. So am I. Can any Language Log reader shed serious (rather than speculative) light on its etymology? Comments are open.


  1. Martin Parkinson said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    I'd imagine it's from Lewis Mumford. Some sort of mid 20th century writer cove, I think, but surely someone else here knows more?

  2. Rachel Fulton said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    Here's a guess. I found another use of "Mumfordish" in The Sewanee Review for 1932 (p. 15). All I can see on Google Books is the following snippet: "…properties of letters' while contributing essays of a definitely sociological, and a sociology of a Mumfordish, variety to the New Republic." My guess is this is a reference to Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), who, according to Wikipedia, was somewhat particular in his use of language (e.g. his preference for the word "technics"). His words would be taboo because they would be perceived as neologisms or quirks.

  3. Bobbie said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    The citation from 1934 is mentioned at the OED Online website at about off-color uses of the word "john" including this:
    g. Abbrev. of John Thomas (b).
    1934 Neuphilol. Mitt. XXXV. 130 Here [at public-school] his first linguistic experience will be with mumfordish and swear-words (e.g…john ‘penis’..). 1948 D. BALLANTYNE Cunninghams II. xvi. 241 How often did the nurse find him with his old john lying limply? 1972 C. MURRY Private View I. 33 The tip of old John brushed against the inside of my thigh.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    Perhaps it's an allusion to the steamboat mate Uncle Mumford in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (Chapter 28, "Uncle Mumford Unloads"). He was given to interjections like "Hump yourself, you son of an undertaker!"

  5. Rich B. said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 11:36 am

    Oh dear. I'll never be able to look at Sesame Street's house magician "The Amazing Mumford" the same way again!

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    It's pretty obscure, but if the implication of "mumfordish" is bawdiness, what about Mumford, the Gallian King's sex-obsessed attendant in The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella?

  7. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 11:54 am

    I like Ray's suggestion. Surely Alan S C Ross, literary historian that he was, would have known about the King Leir character (much more likely than the Twain character).

  8. Nigel Greenwood said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

    Slightly OT, I know, but it seems that this is the ASC Ross who wrote an article in 1954 on "U and non-U" English in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen (of course) published in Helsinki (where else?). The article ("Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English") was popularized by Nancy Mitford & taken very seriously in class-conscious Britain.

  9. Virtual Linguist said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

    I think Dr W Bryant Mumford is meant. He lectured in 'comparative education with special reference to "primitive peoples"' in the (London) Institute of Education Colonial Department at the time that ACS Ross was making his remarks, later (1935-51) becoming principal of the London Day Training College, whose remit was education in the colonies, and whose name later became Department of Education in Tropical Areas.
    I have just looked at an article written by Dr W Bryant Mumford entitled 'The Heha-Bena-Sangu peoples of East Africa' in American Anthropologist (New Series), Vol 36, no. 2, (Apr-Jun 1934, pp 203-222).
    The article is concerned with the customs of these people including those surrounding marriage, childbirth, menstruation etc. It's all pretty earthy stuff, talking of what would now be called female genital mutilation, phallic symbols and so on. Bryant Mumford gives the words for various family relationships and other things and they are certainly unusual words: mwana, mwali, mtwa, wigendu, mtwa, yaya and many more. The word 'taboo' appears 18 times in the article, often as sex-taboo.
    I imagine that Mumford and his words caused quite a stir at the time.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

    Virtual Linguist's identification seems right. If Lewis Mumford is meant (and the timing is right, although I don't know how well known he was in Britain), the reference might be to his tendency to psychoanalytic interpretations of writers and philosophers — regarded as inappropriate by some.

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

    Lewis Mumford was very well known in Britain. However that was after the publication of The Culture of Cities in 1934, and I suspect the reputation grew slowly.

  12. Ray Girvan said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

    Virtual Linguist's identification seems right
    Agreed: taboo body-part vocabulary, and the right time-slot.

  13. language hat said,

    October 15, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

    Yes, I think Virtual Linguist has it.

  14. Andy J said,

    October 16, 2008 @ 4:14 am

    Whilst Lewis Mumford might be the source, he appears to have been a liberal thinker rather than a prescriptivist, so why would his theories attract the taboo connotation? I think a more likely candidate is Catherine Mumford Booth (1829-1890) the wife of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. She was an active campaigner on moral issues before she met Booth and remained a major influence in the Salvation Army. That said I can find nothing to show that she campaigned specifically on the subject of taboo words.

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