Mind your language

Lumpen’s journey from Marxism to nonsense

A borrowed German word that has developed a false English back-story

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

A publisher, Kevin Mayhew, has written to The Tablet, which is not a computer journal but a weekly magazine of interest to Catholics, complaining that the newly revised translation of the Mass is ‘lumpen, difficult and odd’. What would you think he meant by lumpen?

Or try this, from a recent review in the TLS of a biography of Jack London, commenting on an example of detail in The People of the Abyss (1903): ‘a deceptively lumpen old man who gently tucks a rogue strand of hair behind his wife’s ear’.

The English word lumpen derives from Karl Marx’s use of Lumpenproletariat. He first used it in 1850 of the ‘down and outs’ who make no contribution to the workers’ cause. Lumpenproletariat appeared in an English book for the first time in 1924, in a translation of The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, where Marx calls them a ‘recruiting ground for thieves and criminals of all kinds living on the crumbs of society, people without a definite trade, vagabonds’.

It was clear enough to Germans, for lumpen is the German for ‘rag’. The Lumpenproletariat were ragged, ragged-trousered as Robert Tressell put it in his posthumously published novel. There is a lively myth among admirers of Tressell that he wanted to call it Ragged-Arsed Philanthopists. In any case, ragged is the key.

But folk etymology feels the urge to seek an English origin for lumpen, and finds it in lump, as though a lumpen thing was made of lumps just as a golden thing is made of gold, or a wooden thing of wood. It doesn’t matter that the suffix –en is often of antique or rhetorical flavour (as with carven or silvern), it can still be recruited for a new formation or to explain a word of the same surface appearance.

Go back far enough, the scientific etymologists tell us, and the English lump may well derive from the same word as lap (meaning ‘part of a garment hanging down’). Of unrelated origin is the verbal doublet lump and lowr, where lump derives its power from its sound, like dump, glump, grump, hump, mump. Mr Mayhew is lumpish in the old sense of ‘dejected’, but not, that I know, lumpen.

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