Word of the Week! Bumptious

I first noticed this word when reading Willa Cather’s excellent novel The Professor’s House, way back in graduate school. She describes in great detail the overdone decor of the main character’s abode, including “the awkward oak mantles with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls.”

The alliteration stuck with me but so did the idea that an inanimate object, rather than a pushy, overly friendly person, could be “bumptious.” The OED’s entry gives a history only dating to the early 19th Century, from a humorous use of the word “bump.”¬† The sense here is a conceited, self-assured, or offensive person, not a carved bit of wood.

The American Heritage Dictionary adds a possible etymology of combining “bump” and “presumptuous,” which certainly describes a bumptious person, but not a ball.

Perhaps Cather, so annoyed in other places with techniques made possible by modern power tools, just hated the woodwork she’d seen somewhere and could not resist the odd pairing of words. Whatever one might think of it, the usage stuck with me nearly 30 years, much like the memory of a really boorish, bumptious buffoon.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

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