Fall 2008 Linguistics Articles

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This issue Literary Magic brings a Linguistics Essay covering the "Umble" words of our language, exploring common themes and etymologies.


                    Umble: The Clumsy Suffix

                                    By Rocky Reichman


      What does this title mean? Words with the “Umble” sound in them tend to denote “Clumsiness” or “confused,” in some form.

      Bumble. Fumble. Stumble. Tumble. Jumble. Think about it. Listen to the words. Define them. See any pattern? They all contain the sound “umble” as a (long) suffix. And they all mean “clumsy” in some manner. They are all related. “Umble” is a Clumsy Suffix. We’ll go through each of the above words to prove this theory correct.

      Bumble is a verb for “blundering.” Bumble, Stumble and Jumble all mean “to proceed unsteadily or clumsily; to move in a confused manner.” And Bumble’s second definition is synonymous with the “Umble” words Mumble and Grumble. All three of these words mean “to speak ineptly in a confused, inarticulate voice; to stutter.” And Fumble and Tumble? Forget about it. There’s no doubt that they’re related, too. To Fumble is “to grope or handle something clumsily, in an awkward manner.” To Tumble is “to fall suddenly or helplessly; to issue forth hurriedly and confusedly.”

      Need I say more? These “Umble” words are all related in that they denote the same thing. They all either describe someone as “moving clumsily” or as “speaking clumsily.” “Umble” should be a new suffix, short for “clumsy.”

Every theory needs its counter-argument. True, words like Humble and Rumble do not necessarily fit our “Umble” criteria for “clumsy and confused.” But these apples do not fall so far from the “Umble” tree. Humble and Rumble both mean “speaking in a low tone,” which is not very dissimilar from Grumble or Mumble. Plus they rhyme. Bumble-fumble-stumble-tumble-jumble-mumble-grumble-humble-rumble. Doesn’t that make a harmonious melody?

To be fair, it is unlikely that these “Umble” words were originally meant to be synonymous. How? Check out their etymologies. Their origins differ. There is no connection etymologically. But phonetically? Yes, they are related. Semantically? You bet ya’. What makes their connection so strong is not their rhyme or the way they sound. It’s what they mean. An internal connection. (Most) “Umble” words denote someone or something that is “clumsy” or “confused.”

      I would not be surprised if “Umble” really did become tomorrow’s suffix for “clumsy.” If it did, then this language would be a lot less confusing.

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