The “Bumbershoot” Conundrum

Percy Pinkerton, of Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandoes

(I wrote an essay for the online magazine Slate about whether bumbershoot is or is not a Britishism. The first two paragraphs are below.)

In my recent Slate article about Americans using more Britishisms, I wondered aloud, “Why have we adopted laddish while we didn’t adopt telly or bumbershoot?” More than one English person responded to this query with another: “Bumbershoot? What do you mean, bumbershoot?”

I told them I had always thought of this funny term for umbrella as one of those words, like cheerio and old man, that the stage Englishman is required to say. My wife had the same impression. But when I looked into the matter, I learned that we were apparently misinformed. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word as “originally and chiefly U.S. slang.” And the digital archive of the Times of London, comprising 7,696,959 articles published between 1785 and 1985, yields precisely zero hits for bumbershoot.

(To read the rest of the article, go to Slate.)

17 thoughts on “The “Bumbershoot” Conundrum

  1. I’m glad you cleared that up… I did wonder what on earth “bumbershoot” was, as it’s not a term that I’ve ever come across before.

  2. Great word though. In the main article, I liked this:

    “…weren’t Americanisms at all, but rather clichés, neologisms, or merely expressions that happened to annoy the complainer”

    Ah yes, the opportunity for a good whinge. Chocolate bars are smaller now as well you know; it’s because we did away with corporal punishment.

  3. I believe it’s a confusion between brolly(BrE) and bumbershoot(AmE) due to the unconscious connection of the two “b” words – just a thought.

  4. I am English and have never heard of Bumbershoot until now.

    However there is another English word “gamp” used for umbrella. This I believe is after a character in Martin Chuzlewit by Dickens (a Mrs Gamp) but I doubt it is in wide spread use and perhaps regional.

    Another misapprehension needs to be cleared up.

    The British were never a nation of umbrella carrying people. This practice was a metropolitan one.confined to City Gents and upper class types.

    Since, certainly in former times visiting Americans and other nationalities, seldom got out of London, it may have appeared that carrying an umbrella was standard practice but in reality this was not so for the wider population.

    (Not much use for umbrellas down a coal mine or in a ship yard.)

    Elsewhere among the wider population of the working class, light-weight often floral patterned umbrellas might be carried by some women but “real men” never carried an umbrellas, considered effete and pretentious. It was the tough, manly thing to do to face the elements. Gloves similarly were eschewed.

  5. Dunno what happened to my attempts to post last night.

    Dick van Dyke referred to his bumbershoot in Mary Poppins, which would go a long way to explaining why it may be thought of as British.

  6. This is a word that has long been known in Pittsburgh as part of our Pittsburghese. I actually think a lot of our Pittsburghese are derived from Scotland such as Redd up and slippy.

  7. British character Daphne Moon also refers to a bumbershoot in one of the first episodes of Frasier, adding that it means umbrella (in a completely inaccurate way obviously). Jane Leeves would have known better.

    1. I do hope that no Americans base their ideas of a British family on the Moon clan; their accents are a random selection from all over the British Isles. It’s as though someone rang Central Casting and said: “Send us half a dozen Brits, with accents” and didn’t mention that they were supposed to be related.

  8. Just to add a little more colour: Napoleon believed that English men were effeminate because they carried umbrellas, and consequently decided that they would be easily conquered. Of course, the carrying of an umbrella actually signifies preparedness and forethought, with an added dash of chivalry (being able to protect others from the rain). Hence the well-known results of the Battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo.

  9. To add to the Dick van Dyke connection, he uses the term “bumbershoot” during the song “Me Ol’ Bamboo”, which was the first I’d heard of it. Found out it was apparently an Americanism after being asked by my three-year-old about it. (“You can have me hat or me bum-ber-shoo’, but you’d better never bother with me ol’ bam-boo.”)

  10. According to Chambers (BrEng) dictionary: “bumbershoot (US facetious) An umbrella. Origin: Alteration of _umbre_lla, with para_chute_”

  11. Fred Astaire uses the word Bumbershoot in the title song of the film “The Notorious Landlady”, which is based in Britain (it’s both a jolly film and a catchy song), but as you have suggested in your main article, it is a word attributed to the British without actually being so.

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