Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mum's the Word

Susan asked about the phrase, mum’s the word.  Mum is an inarticulate sound made with closed lips. It mimics the way that we pronounce the letter –m-. In fact, if you say an extended –m- and open your lips for just a fraction of a second, you will utter a mum.

Pursing the lips or closing them is a sign of an unwillingness to speak, and that’s what mum signifies: silence, don’t say anything, zip it. A related word is mummer, a masked person in a play, especially a mime, who says nothing so as not to break character. Originally, a mummer was any person who murmured or muttered.

Although normally silent, a mummy has nothing to do with mum.

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