Published: 31st October 2020
Are you a mumpsimus? What does it mean and how to use it in context
Any person who is persistent in repeating a mistake is called a mumpsimus. Albert P' Rayan speaks about its origin and more
A year ago, while interacting with a group of teachers of English at a workshop, I tried to find out whether any of the participants knew the word that has this definition: “A person who stubbornly follows a custom or believes in an idea though there is evidence to prove that the custom or idea is unreasonable.” I didn’t expect any of the participants to give me the correct answer. The reason for my assumption was that the particular word is not widely used though it is quite a useful one. To my surprise, a young teacher, bubbling with energy and enthusiasm, gave the correct answer. The word is “mumpsimus”.
It is one of my favourite words. I use the word to categorise teachers who adhere to certain methods and practices though they are told by knowledgeable people that such methods and practices are useless or unreasonable. Even if they are proved wrong, they continue to believe that they are doing the right thing and don’t take steps to correct themselves. Any person who is persistent in repeating a mistake is called a mumpsimus. Here is an example of how the word is used in sentences:
She is such a mumpsimus that she can’t change her teaching methods.
The word also refers to “a traditional notion that is obstinately held although it is unreasonable”. Look at this example:
Many ministers in the union cabinet suffer from mumpsimus.
The word has an interesting origin. It was accidentally coined by a poorly educated monk. He mispronounced the word ‘sumpsimus’ in the Latin phrase “quod in ore sumpsimus” as ‘mumpsimus’ and persisted in saying “quod in ore mumpsimus” though he was made aware of the mistake. When he was asked to use the correct word, he is said to have replied, “I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus”. It is not clear whether the monk was stubborn or refused to believe that he was mistaken. Aren’t we reminded of the proverb: “Old habits die hard.”
Does Donald Trump suffer from ‘mumpsimus’? Here is an interesting anecdote about Trump. Though there is no evidence to prove that the anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine can ward off the chances of contracting Coronavirus, President Trump asked Americans to take the medicine. Steve Finan of The Courier in his opinion piece ‘Oh my word’ wrote: “I suspect that Donald will have been told, or has read, that there is no proven reason for taking this drug. But he doesn’t care, he has decided to take it anyway. You could say he is being a mumpsimus.”
Now let us discuss the word ‘sumpsimus’. A person who persists in holding to a precise practice or using a strictly correct term is called a ‘sumpsimus’. Some people are zealous about correctness. A pedant who is obsessed with minor details who does not tolerate grammatical errors and who insists on grammaticalness can also be called a ‘sumpsimus’. In that sense, it has both positive and negative connotations. It also refers to “a correct form of expression or a new and better custom or notion”.