December 9th, 2002


Sometimes, words get stuck in my head.

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.”

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