Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Last week, a listener asked about the word thumble, a word new to me. It appeared in the early 1600s, and it meant to touch with the thumb, to handle clumsily, or to fumble. Thumb, in turn, came from pre-Teutonic and Sanskrit sources and referred to the thick finger, the fat finger, or the strong finger.

This was followed by a call from David of East Bay, Traverse City. He wondered if thumble and fumble had a common source, not just because of the spelling, but because both involved negative experiences. As it turns out, fumble comes from a Scandinavian word meaning to grope, so they are not directly related, though the meanings intersect.

Then I started thinking about other words ending in -umble, and I decided to do a wildcard search in the Oxford English Dictionary. While the words are separated by time and by origin, it turns out that most of them signify something negative, and onomatopoeia is cited frequently as a possible cause of development. Here are some of them arranged chronologically;

• mumble: to chew the cud or move the lips as if doing so, or murmur, 1275 [Germanic, to chew with toothless gums]
• stumble: to miss one’s footing, 1325 [Norwegian, to stumble in the dark]
• crumble: to reduce to small fragments, 1420 [Dutch, to crumble]
• bumble: to blunder or flounder, 1532 [Swedish, to strike]
• fumble: make an awkward attempt to grasp something, 1534 [Scandinavian, to grope]
• grumble: to mutter in complaint, 1596 [Dutch, to growl]
• thumble: to handle clumsily, 1623 [Sanskrit, thick finger]
• jumble: a confused mixture, 1661 [Origin unknown]

Two other words don’t reflect negativity in the same way. Humble, insignificant or unpretentious, came from the Latin word for ground. Rumble, to make a low sound, came from a Norwegian word meaning the same thing.


Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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