British People Do Not Actually Call Umbrellas Bumbershoots

Language and how we use it.
Nov. 4 2011 12:52 PM

Cheerio, Bumbershoot!

The word is not actually British for umbrella.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (center), rarely seen without his bumbershoot, departs after meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1938

Courtesy German Federal Archive.

In my recent Slate article about Americans using more Britishisms, I wondered aloud, "Why have we adopted laddish while we didn't adopt telly or bumbershoot?" More than one English person responded to this query with another: "Bumbershoot? What do you mean, bumbershoot?"

I told them I had always thought of this funny term for umbrella as one of those words, like cheerio and old man, that the stage Englishman is required to say. My wife had the same impression. But when I looked into the matter, I learned that we were apparently misinformed. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word as "originally and chiefly U.S. slang." And the digital archive of the Times of London, comprising 7,696,959 articles published between 1785 and 1985, yields precisely zero hits for bumbershoot.

As late as 1933, there was no British association. That year the New York Times ran a short editorial praising bumbershoot as "a term that drips with poetry and magic" and referring to it as "the mystical name, the children's name, for an umbrella." (And can we lament for a second that the Times editorial-page prose style no longer drips with poetry and magic?) Some days later, R.A. McGlasson wrote a letter to the editor saying that the word was commonly used in his Dutchess County, N.Y. childhood 50 years earlier; another correspondent, Louis Margolis, reported he first heard it while "spending a summer on a Connecticut farm in New London County at the tender age of ten or eleven years."

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So were my wife and I crazy? Further investigations suggested not (or at least not for this particular reason). In 1953 (approximately the year of our birth), Time magazine ran a review of The Little Emperors, Alfred Duggan's historical novel about Roman Britain, and was clearly thinking the way we did: “As an extra dividend, the book is clearly intended for reading as an oblique comment on the British character, and especially on the modern British bureaucracy. Author Duggan seems to suggest that, given a bowler and bumbershoot to go with his tidy, official face, Felix might patter along Downing Street without winning a second glance.” Five years later, the same magazine noted: “British Mystery Writer Agatha Christie, 66, chugged up the sheer Acropolis, posed—looking not unlike her own fictional Miss Marple with bumbershoot and catchall—beneath the world's most spine-tingling marble slab: the entablature of the Parthenon.”

In 1968, the (American) songwriting Sherman brothers wrote this couplet for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where it was sung by the English character played by Dick Van Dyke:

You can have me hat or me bumbershoot
But you'd better never bother with me ol’ bam-boo.

(It’s interesting that Van Dyke would be awarded this role, given that in an earlier Disney film, Mary Poppins, his Bert permanently set the template for American actors’ lame British accents.)

In the early '90s, the writers of Frasier used the notion of bumbershoot-as-Britishism to underpin this exchange between the anglophile Niles and his English crush, Daphne:

Niles: Take my bumbershoot.
Daphne: Oh, isn't that nice, well at least someone appreciates my mother tongue.
[Leaves.]
Niles: Yes, I've always had an ear for your tongue.
Frasier: Niles!

My research has actually led me to propose a year when bumbershoot changed from U.S. regional slang to presumed Britishism: 1939. The year before, at the Munich Conference, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's was invariably depicted holding a (furled) umbrella, in the manner of a saint and his icon. The imagery suggested a weaponlike thing that was not and would not be used as a weapon, hence its aptness and its stickiness. The following year, Chamberlain traveled to Rome to try, unsuccessfully, to apply some diplomatic pressure to Mussolini. And the New York Times ran a feature that reproduced several editorial cartoons about Chamberlain's mission. Every one showed him with an umbrella. The overall caption was, "Mr. Chamberlain's 'bumbershoot' provides inspiration for British and American cartoonists."

I hypothesize that bumbershoot became a faux Britishism because of a confluence of factors. First, the incredibly intense association of Neville Chamberlain with umbrellas. Second, the well-documented fondness of the English for umbrellas, in part due to the fact that it rains a lot there. Third, the fact that bumbershoot sort of sounds British. And fourth, the presence of an actual British slang term for umbrella, brolly. (If Eskimos have however many hundred words for snow, surely the British have at least three for for umbrella!)

In any case, by 1940, this misapprehension was in place. A book published that year, War Propaganda and U.S., noted: "To many upper-class Americans there was nothing so thrilling as having an Englishman around the house, complete with Oxford accent, school tie, and bumbershoot."

All this research made me remember when I first encountered the term, or at the least first associated it with the British. It was in the Marvel comic book "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandoes," a rip-roaring 1960s series about a World War II squad that included Isadore "Izzy" Cohen, Robert "Reb" Ralston, Dino Manelli, Gabe Jones (a bugle-blowing African-American), and Percival "Pinky" Pinkerton. According to a Marvel fan site, "Pinky's chief tool is his umbrella (bumbershoot). He has used this device as a club, fenced with it as a sword, used it to aid him in climbing, to slow his descent while falling, and to shield himself from sunlight. Does it serve any particular function in a rainstorm? The world may never know."

Ben Yagoda is the author of a new e-book about recent language trends, You Need to Read This.