Mind your language

Butterbump

23 March 2016

3:00 PM

23 March 2016

3:00 PM

‘Still I’m called Buttercup —poor little Buttercup,’ sang my husband in an inappropriate and displeasing baritone. Not wishing to encourage him, I simply said: ‘Darling, it’s butterbump.’

A furniture company called Loaf has been advertising ‘butterbump sofas’, supposedly named for their bringing out customers in a cross between goosebumps and butterflies. It doesn’t sound a very agreeable sensation. The sofas in question have buttons deeply indenting the upholstery in a quincunx pattern.


I suspect the sofa–marketing department hopes to charm shoppers with the word butterbump, just as some people take pleasure in serendipity and hagrid. But butterbump is no neologism. It exists as an old name for a bittern. Tennyson used the word in his strange poemNorthern Farmer: Old Style’, which in 1869 The Spectator praised most highly. The dying farmer remembers a ‘boggle’ in waste land making a noise ‘moäst loike a butter-bump’. Heaven knows what accent Tennyson was trying to reproduce — perhaps a Lincolnshire dialect.

Butterbump is ‘bittern’, then, and in origin doubly so. The butter element, sometimes bitter, means ‘bittern’. The bump means the ‘boom of the bittern’. Bittern comes from Old French butor, of obscure derivation. But in medieval Latin, this name was refashioned as bos-taurus, because Pliny wrote of ‘a bird called Taurus (because it loweth like a Bull or Cow, for otherwise a small bird it is)’, as Philemon Holland translated it in 1601.

Goosebumps is an Americanism available since the 1930s for what in English has long been called gooseflesh or horripilation. Tennyson’s rival Browning, in The Ring and the Book, has a lawyer on a cold day thinking of his client, Guido in prison, ‘all goose-flesh in his hole’. No sofa for him.

As for butterflies in the stomach, the phrase is unknown before 1908. The family language called ‘Glynnese’ used by the Lytteltons and Gladstones used the phrase bathing feel for the sensation. In 1841, Gladstone, on being asked how he felt on becoming vice-president of the Board of Trade, replied: ‘Bathing feel’. It did not make him rush out and buy a sofa.

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