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We commonly use this to refer to some especially appetising item of food or a very attractive person. Roald Dahl, who wrote the script for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, felt it was appropriate for the character Truly Scrumptious, which must be in contention with Pussy Galore for the worst-ever fictional female name.

Critics have not been kind to scrumptious. In 1921, H L Mencken described it as an “artificial word”, lumping it with sockdolager, hunky-dory, spondulix, slumgullion and similar creations of American linguistic ingenuity. In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926, H W Fowler classed it as a “facetious formation”.

Many dictionaries just say “origin unknown” or “origin uncertain”, not wanting to engage in complicated but ultimately unsatisfying discussions about etymology. This writer has no such qualms.

It’s certainly American in origin, dating from about the 1830s, at a time when so many other splendiferous terms were emerging from the melting pot of cultural assimilation. But when it first appeared it had a different meaning:

I won’t trouble you to ride far to find me; — and then it may be broad sword, or pistol, rifle or bagnet — I’m not over-scrumptious which.

Horse Shoe Robinson, by John Pendleton Kennedy, 1835. Bagnet is an old term for a bayonet.

Here it clearly means scrupulous. In another early example, from Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s The Clockmaker of 1836, it’s a vague term of praise: “A little tidy scrumptious looking slay” (we would now write the last word as sleigh). In 1846, Sylvester Judd put it in his novel Margaret to mean fastidious (“I don’t mean to be scrumptious about it, Judge; but I do want to be a man, if I am a Breakneck, and haven’t so much eddecation as the rest”). It could also have about it the idea of a stylish or handsome person. Our current sense evolved around the middle of the century.

Some current dictionaries start from the modern meaning to argue that it’s from sumptuous, which doesn’t fit the earlier senses. Various English dialects have had words of the same spelling. A writer to Notes and Queries in 1870 said it was Essex dialect meaning charming or delightful, quoting a fond lover to his lass: “Oh you scrumptious little duck!” That neatly matches one modern meaning but not the early ones. Despite its form, it has no connection with the English term for the childish pastime of scrumping, stealing apples from an orchard or garden.

The English Dialect Dictionary records scrumptious as Suffolk dialect for a miserly, stingy or close-fisted person; the Century Dictionary of 1889 and the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that it derives from dialect scrimptious, based on scrimp, to be thrifty, as in scrimp and save. The Dictionary of American Regional English has an entry for scrimption, a bit or scrap, recorded mainly in the US South from 1834, which it says is from English dialect, presumably scrimptious. It’s not impossible to imagine that scrimption (or its variant scrumption) became scrumptious, but we’re still left with no information how the term took on its modern meaning.

Perhaps “origin unknown” isn’t such a bad summary after all.

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Page created 20 Apr 2013