Sometimes we don’t notice word patterns until we are interpreting. I noticed for the first time that verbs that end with -umble tend to mean sloppy or uncoordinated, or almost doing something. I theorized that” dumb” and these words were all connected. It also made me think of one of Dickens’ favorite villains, Uriah Heep, who kept claiming he was so “‘umble”. But he was no good at being humble. We could even say he bumbled at being humble. In one of Dickens’ many moral warnings, he reminds us that pride comes before a fall.
A fall is what many drunk drivers experience as part of their field sobriety tests. It is not required, but happens quite a lot. Prosecutors like to mention this kind of thing to juries. They use a lot of -umble words, like tumble. They talk about the suspect mumbling, stumbling and fumbling. The drunks mumbled when they tried to speak – so they couldn’t speak clearly. They stumbled when they tried to walk, so they almost fell down. Sometimes they actually took a tumble. Then when they look for their keys or license, they fumbled around, sometimes not even finding them, or almost dropping them. Sloppy. Uncoordinated, not doing things smartly. And of course it is dumb to drink and drive in the first place. But prosecutors are not allowed to say that, so they rely on -umble words to paint the picture.
Quite a few of these words just don’t have a one-word straight across translation. For example, for mumbling, the closest thing in my target language is probably “to talk indistinctly”. Then there is stumble. The closest thing is “to almost fall”. Then we have tumble, which means to actually fall down and maybe even roll a bit – a bad fall. We have bumble, which means to mess something up. And crumble, to fall into tiny pieces. Fumble is also hard to interpret into another language – it ambiguously means either to do something badly – or fail to do it. Fumbling for your keys translates as “searching for your keys by feel” but it could also mean “searching for your keys and failing to find them, or dropping them”. If you mix up things instead of organizing them, you jumble them up. You grumble when you just kind of mutter under your breath instead of complaining out loud. There is even the unusual scumble, to put an opaque color over a painting – to make it indistinct.
So of course all these words come from “dumb”, I theorized. You are doing things in an unsmart way. I felt quite clever in figuring this out. But the weird thing is that this set of words do not seem to have a single common origin, at least that I can find recorded. Oxford dictionary gives at least five different languages as origins for these various rhyming words. These -umble words are similar to good friends that look and act so alike, people start to falsely presume they are siblings, when in fact they do not come from common stock.
Mumble comes from the English word mum, to keep ones lips together, to be mum or silent. So mumble actually means to talk with your mouth almost closed, which is why you are not articulating clearly. Dumb also means silent or unable to speak, and is related to Germanic and Old Norse. It has now been taken over by the alternate meaning leaking in from Dutch and German, meaning stupid. This has been an unfortunate conflation of meaning for the speech-impaired, who used to be called dumb. It also seems wrong for the speech-unimpaired, as most of the extremely intelligent people I know speak very little. Still waters run deep. The brilliant are often blissfully silent. Or simply talk beautifully with their hands.
Bumble actually comes from the English word for a deep and resonant sound, boom, perhaps from the Dutch, meaning to hum or buzz. Bumble bees are not bumblers by any stretch of the imagination. But they do buzz. How this came to mean to do something poorly I do not know. I cannot connect bumblebees with doing things in an awkward or confused manner. I think bees would be insulted if they spoke English. Bumble makes me think of the word clumsy, an adjective holding the same meaning, but coming to us via Swedish. Clumsy originally meant to be numb, so it fits well for drunks.
Crumble comes from the German, from the word for crumb or a small bit of bread or cake. Fumble is also from German. It now means to handle something clumsily or to lose control of something. Often, when numbed up on drugs or alcohol, what one loses control of is ones motor vehicle, it seems. Then once pulled over, the car keys, license, and insurance paperwork. Then ones feet, and even ones own nose, fumbling with a finger and failing to find the tip of it, during the field sobriety test. Fumbling and driving is a bad combination. Numbing yourself to the point of becoming clumsy is dumb.
Grumble also comes from German and now means to complain about something in a bad-tempered but muted way. Perhaps it means an ineffective or bumbling way to complain. It brings to mind the word mutter, to speak under ones breath, as we say. I don’t know whether Germans have a tendency to mutter and grumble a lot, or if these words come from German simply because English is a Germanic language. I do notice, on the other hand, that the words praise and compliment both come not from German, but from French. I’m just saying.
Humble makes a great rhyming word for the above terms, but it is not related. It comes from the Latin humus for earth. I fear that once again it is a dis on agricultural workers and farmers who live and work close to the earth. Townsfolk who would starve in a week without these growers have a long history of feeling superior to their more earthbound cousins. With no good reason, I must add. We are all of the earth, and therefore have equal reason to be humble, even those of us who are too bumbling to grow our own food. Praise farmers!
Let us move on to tumble. This is a sweet Old English word for dancing that in Middle English came to mean “dance with contortions” perhaps for circus style performers. I posit that drinking became common even for these professional dancers, so tumbling came to mean not only their intended act of dancing with contortions, but also falling uncontrollably. The French word tomber for falling may have also played into this new mixed meaning. I highly suspect the French of influencing the further meaning of tumble: dancing with contortions with an intimate partner.
Artists have scumble, to add a dark or opaque layer over an otherwise brighter and clearer painting. Scumble comes from the English word scum, meaning froth or dirt. I consider alcoholics and other drug addicts to be scumblers. Like these covered paintings, they are not as bright and clear as they could be. They cannot shine forth in all their glory. Some of them can be downright scummy, at the depths of their addiction. I remind myself that the light is still within them, even if it is obscured and not visible.
We mustn’t jump over that most common of actions during the field sobriety test – stumbling. It can mean to come across something unexpectedly, like the curb. To stumble mostly commonly means to trip as one walks and to almost fall. It comes to us from Old Norse. I think they made it up to mean people who are so used to drinking that they can stay upright and trip as they walk but yet not actually fall. A feat of alcoholism that started way before cars were invented. Too bad it doesn’t transfer to driving. It would be great if drunk drivers could manage to trip along in their cars without actually hitting anyone.
I should note that adding the suffix -le to a noun or an adjective in
English is one of the many ways to convert them into a verb. For English language learners, finding lists of English suffixes is a great way to learn to identify parts of speech. For the most part, English prefixes hold meaning, and the suffixes show part of speech, gender, count or other matters.
You are welcome to invent your own words based on these rules. Just add -le to the end of your favorite adjective or noun and you are ready to rumble. (Rumble is from Middle Dutch and started as the sound of thunder but now also means a fight or eager action.)
Remember that languages are organic and grow and change. For those countries where Zumba is the new form of combined high-energy music, dance and aerobic exercise, if I show up to a class, I think we can safely say that I will zumble. I encourage you to create your own -umble words and put them into use. We can never have too many words! Let your linguistic garden grow, share your new words with friends, and try to stay sober and humble. And if you find something absolutely delicious in your life, go ahead and yumble.