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Q From David Sinclair: I recently heard an American use the word bumbershoot as a humorous term for umbrella. I cannot find where and when it originated. My dictionary says it is an Americanism, but some web sites have said it was a British word for umbrella. The chute part suggests it is recent, but it frequently is associated with old folks, especially ones in the countryside. Any help?

A Any suggestion of a British origin can be immediately refuted. It isn’t known over here at all. In fact, I’d never heard of it until you asked your question. It appears in the lyric of a song sung by Dick Van Dyke in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

Me ol’ bam-boo, me ol’ bam-boo
You'd better never bother with me ol’ bam-boo
You can have me hat or me bumbershoot
But you'd better never bother with me ol’ bam-boo.

The English context of the film may be why some Americans, not familiar with the word in their own country, have come to believe it must be British, though the song was actually written by two Americans, Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman.

It seems to have been yet another of those gloriously facetious bits of wordplay so characteristic of America in the nineteenth century. Quite how it came about is a matter of some guesswork, but it looks moderately certain that the first part derives from the beginning of umbrella, with a b put in front so that it makes the evocative and forceful first syllable bum; the second half, as you surmise, is a respelling of the final syllable of parachute, presumably because of the similar shape.

Don’t assume that any word derived from parachute must be at all recent. Perhaps surprisingly, that word dates from the early days of Montgolfier ballooning and first appeared in English in 1785. (Umbrella itself dates from the early seventeenth century, originally from an Italian word for a sunshade, with the first part traceable back to Latin umbra, shadow.)

The first example of bumbershoot in Professor Lighter’s Random House Historical Dictionary of the American Language is from 1896. There were some variations around in the early days, such as bumbersol (with sol presumably taken from parasol) and bumberell. By the first decade of the twentieth century it had settled down to bumbershoot.

This fairly rare example of the word in print comes from L Frank Baum’s book Sky Island of 1912:

“This umbrella has been in our family years, an’ years, an’ years. But it was tucked away up in our attic an’ no one ever used it ’cause it wasn’t pretty.” “Don’t blame ’em much,” remarked Cap’n Bill, gazing at it curiously. “It’s a pretty old-lookin’ bumbershoot.”

These days, it’s moderately uncommon, though still to be found. It turns up most often in connection with the Seattle Arts Festival. Bumbershoot was so named, I am told, because of that great city’s notoriously wet climate.

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Page created 17 Aug 2002; Last updated 13 Oct 2002