June 25, 2013

Case File #013.06.25: BUMPKIN

Etymologists and lexicographers are split over the ultimate source of the word bumpkin, though all agree that it first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1570 and is probably of Dutch origin. Some believe it was derived from the Middle Dutch bommekijn, which meant “little cask” and was often used as a humorous moniker for tipplers with beer bellies, while others believe it came from the Middle Dutch boomken, which meant “shrub” or “little tree” and was sometimes used as an epithet for people who were small in stature. (The latter theory seems the more likely if you consider the nautical sense of bumpkin, which first came into use around 1632 and refers to a short spar that projects from the deck of a ship. As I'm sure you'll agree, a bumpkin of this type resembles a short tree more than it does a cask or barrel.) But regardless of the word's origin, upper-crust English speakers originally used it as a disparaging term for any gauche emigrant in their midst, and it wasn't until the eighteenth century that bumpkin lost its xenophobic connotations and became a designation for unsophisticated yokels both domestic and foreign.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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