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Lump it

Q From Brenda Kock: I am wondering as to the origin of the phrase lump it. It is often used in this form: “If you don’t like it you can lump it”.

A Or, in more pithy vein, like it or lump it.

Lump in this case isn’t the common one for an irregular compact mass of something, such as a lump of coal, an obscure word dating from about 1300. Our lump is even more obscure in origin, were that possible, and begins to be recorded in the language near the end of the sixteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary points to other words of similar form, such as dump, glump, grump, hump and mump to support its surmise that lump is what it calls symbolic, presumably meaning imitative.

Lump then meant to look disagreeable or sulky. It was usually paired with lour, or lower, to look angry or threatening (as in lowering sky, one that is overcast and threatens a storm). An early example:

She beganne to froune, lumpe, and lowre at her housebande.

Farewell Military Profession, by Barnaby Rich, 1581.

The lump it expression took another two centuries to arrive, in our modern sense of putting up with something. My mental image is of a young person sitting sulkily silent, having been told that some aspect of the world wasn’t to their liking.

By 1807, it was sufficiently well known that it formed an example in a wordily satirical article on how dreadful puns were as a source of humour:

Mrs. —— purposely sends a dish of tea to a lady, without sugar, of which she complains. Mr. —— (Handing her the sugar basin) —— Well, ma’am, if you don’t like it, you may lump it.

The Monthly Mirror (London), Sep. 1807. At this time, sugar would indeed have come in lumps, irregularly cut from a sugar loaf.

(The writer commented, “I must not forget to observe, that if you can add any practical jokes, which lead to puns, and fall at all short of murder, the treat will be infinitely improved”.)

There is some polite disagreement about its country of origin. The earliest example on record is American, in a magazine published in Philadelphia. It appeared in an article with the title Thoughts on Proverbs:

Throw your lump where your love lies” plainly argues that every lover ought to make a beneficial settlement on his beloved. But I will not be positive as to this solution, since another proverb, viz. “As you like it, you may lump it” evidently contradicts it.

The Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine, Aug. 1790.

The writer’s other examples are genuine proverbs, so we may assume that the two quoted above are likewise real, even though they’re not recorded elsewhere and aren’t in any book on my shelves. If true, it says that the expression was necessarily some time away from being new, which in turn implies it was common to the English of both sides of the Atlantic.

It is still often found wherever English is spoken:

This is free speech folks, like it or lump it.

Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), 23 Apr. 2009.

Like it or lump it, however, Labour knows it must make a serious dent in Key’s credibility if it is to have any chance of winning this election.

New Zealand Herald, 9 Nov 2011.

Page created 27 Oct. 2012

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Last modified: 27 October 2012.