Thursday, July 26, 2012



Thanks to Alan Crease for introducing me to the word mumpsimus, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "A person who obstinately adheres to old ways in spite of clear evidence that they are wrong; an ignorant and bigoted opponent of reform."

The origin of the word mumpsimus is interesting:
< post-classical Latin mumpsimus (1517 in R. Pace De Fructu), use as noun of mumpsimus, an error for classical Latin sumpsimus 'we have taken' (see SUMPSIMUS n.), apparently in allusion to the story (1516 in Erasmus) of an illiterate English priest, who when corrected for reading 'quod ore mumpsimus' in the Mass, replied, 'I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus'.
The word first occurs in a letter from Erasmus to Henry Bullock (August 1516; tr. Francis Morgan Nichols):
Again, let them clear up, if they can, this dilemma. Do they allow any change to be made in the sacred text, or absolutely none at all? If any, why not first examine whether a change is rightly made or not? If none, what will they do with those passages where the existence of an error is too manifest to be concealed? Will they desire to follow the example of the priest, who having been used to say mumpsimus for twenty years, refused to change his practice, when told that he ought to read sumpsimus?

quin et illud dilemma, si possint, explicent: utrum permittunt aliquid novari in sacris libris an omnino nihil? si quicquam permittunt, cur non excutiunt potius recte mutatum sit necne? sin minus, quid facient illis locis in quibus mendum inesse manifestius est quam ut negari dissimularive possit? an hic sacrificum illum malint imitari, qui suum 'mumpsimus', quo fuerat viginti usus annos, mutare noluit, admonitus a quopiam 'sumpsimus' esse legendum?
The word quickly gained currency, e.g. in a letter from Richard Pace to Erasmus (August 5, 1517; tr. R.A.B. Mynors):
I really wonder, dear Erasmus, why you spend so much time in your letter on pacifying those donkeys listening to the lyre, unless perhaps the object of your elegant and authoritative letter was to deter other men of the same kidney (a difficult task) from making similar fools of themselves. They ought to be satisfied by your story of our mass-priest and his mumpsimus for sumpsimus. If, however, you wish to go further and attack them in print, I have one request to make of you, that you head your letter to them 'To the College of Numbskulls, with my worst wishes,' and let your first sentence begin 'Off with you to the bottomless pit of ignorance, you mere useless burden on the earth.'

sane miror, mi Erasme, cur in epistola tua tam longa oratione usus es ad istos asinos ad lyram placandos; nisi fortasse illud eleganti gravique epistola agere velles, ut alios quoque id genus homines (quod difficile est) a consimili fatuitate deterreres. satis enim erat istis illud quod scripsisti de 'mumpsimus' et 'sumpsimus' nostri sacrifici. quod si ulterius progredi et in eos scribere vis, cupio hoc unum abs te impetrare, ut hoc titulo epistolam ad illos scribas: Τῇ τῶν ἀνοήτων συνόδῳ κακῶς πράττειν. principium autem epistole detur: Ἄπαγε εἰς τὸ βάραθρον τῆς ἀμαθίας ὑμεῖς, ἀτεχνῶς ἐτώσιον ἄχθος ἀρούρης.
For more information see Peter Marshall, "Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus: The Intellectual Origins of a Henrician Bon Mot," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 52 (2001) 512-520.

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