Tuesday, October 4, 2011


This one was another of those writer's regimen riff words, and it really intrigued me. Cumbersome is something like burdensome. I often think of a cumbersome object as more bulky and awkward than heavy, though maybe that's just me. Unencumbered means something like free of attachments or not weighed down. but what is 'cumber'? Is is a lost word, or one that never existed in the first place?

I also found myself wondering whether the phrase 'to be lumbered with' is related in some way. Frankly, I'm not sure I've ever heard that in American usage--it may be a British expression.

And finally, what's with the '-some' ending? I was thinking about how often it doesn't really give me a clue, I just have to know what the word in full means. A better example of this is 'handsome' or maybe 'winsome'. Well, I may have bitten off more than I can chew here, but let's take a look.


Well, I found several surprises here, which is always interesting--at least for me. Cumbersome can mean awkward becaue of size weight or shape, but also difficult in terms of its extent or complexity. Turns out a lot of things are cumbersome in this life.

That isn't what surprised me, though.

What surprised me is that the original meaning of cumber, from about 1300, is to overthrow or destroy, to be overwhelmed, to harass. Not quite the sense I'm trying to convey when I say I'm  carrying a cumbersome bag of groceries from the store. But maybe this is a false track, because there is an old French word, encombrer, and I think i's sense of to be hampered by obstructions or barriers is really closer to the mark.

But there's also the possibility that it really did have a sense of havoc and destruction, and got diluted, as big words have a tendency to do. (The degradation of the word 'awesome' being a case in point).

Lumber was the one that really got me wondering, though. Of course I've read about lumber rooms, or storage rooms, in British books, but in America lumber is pretty much always the end result of taking a saw to trees. Apparently, this is not the source word, but the other way around. Lumber  originally meant, and probably still does mean, 'disused bit of furniture; heavy, useless objects'. To be lumbered with apparently does not mean to be constrained by a bunch of timber, but by a lot of, well, crap.

This word doesn't come from where you might think it would, either. It seems to have come from Lombard,  which was a family out of northern Italy famous as bankers, and, in their migration to England, moneylenders and pawnbrokers. Although this lineage isn't assured, it seems likely that the what you might call tat in these pawnshops, also known as lombards, is what was eventually referred to as lumber. Who knew?

Venturing ever further afield, my search into that whole -some suffix thing, I was quite surprised to discover what handsome originally meant, round about 1400. It meant easy to handle, or ready to hand. Hard thing to give oneself airs about, I'd think. The meaning extended to be fair sized, or considerable, until it came to another meaning of having a fine form or good looking.

Handsome man of Martineau's day

The online etymology dictionary had this interesting quote from Harriet Martineau in 1837:

[Americans] use the word "handsome" much more extensively than we do: saying that Webster made a handsome speech in the Senate: that a lady talks handsomely, (eloquently:) that a book sells handsomely. A gentleman asked me on the Catskill Mountain, whether I thought the sun handsomer there than at New York.

I think we've largely settled on good looking, though, by now.



  1. Cumbrance or encumbrance has a meaning in civil, too. I should imagine that meaning would be pretty easy to figure out: conferring a right to something free and clear - unencumbered. Since so much English legal vocabulary came from French, this is no surprise.

    I've always found winsome beguiling, but I think the -some word that has enjoyed the greatest currency in our time is awesome.

    And this reminds me of a little joke about a grandmother who called her called her granddaughter aside and said:

    "Sally, there are two words I want you never to use. One is swell, the other is awesome."

    "OK, Grandma. What are the words?"

  2. And do cucumbers have a role in this discussion?

  3. I always hear the wince is winsome, unfortunately.

    But I have to actually restrain myself from wincing when I hear most uses of the word awesome.

    I have no objection to it being applied to mountains.

  4. I eat lunch frequently at a cafe where the clientele is younger than I am, for the most part, and is full of graduate students and would-be artists and musicians. I hear "Awesome!" all the time, often from winsome young women.

    I have a good v-word, a kind of granola for the stiff-necked: refusli

  5. refusli is excellent

    Even if it's overinflated, awesome is at least enthusiastic, and generally kind.

  6. Yeah, awesome's cool or, as the young wankers would say, "Sweet!"

  7. Sweet doesn't annoy me as much as awesome, but I take your point. I think it might be fading out now, though.

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  9. Sorry, I'm getting mixed up about where I'm posting.

  10. Finding all these platforms and outlets cumbersome, are you?

    In any case, perhaps purely by happenstance, the computer would not let me post my reply. I was going to say that since I'm off work the next and few days, I'll likely spend some time in that cafe and thus hear "Sweet!" a time or two.

    I'm likeliest to hear it if the owner of my local bar is working any time I should happen to be in there. I've noticed that young and youngish bar and restaurant owners tend to keep the bonhomie turned up high.

  11. I always associate the expression 'Sweet!' with a nice young guy I used to work with, so I can't really take against it too much.

  12. Seana, I stopped for two beers at my local tonight, and the owner was working:

    “Peter! Would you like another, sir?”

    “Yes, please.”


  13. Sweet!

    I notice that in this expression,the exclamation point is imperative for meaning.

  14. I've added "OMG!" to my repertoire recently.

    In passing, you mentioned Pozzo's ceiling in Rome and I've just uploaded a photo of it.

  15. I always leave this blog, smarter than when I entered ;) Of course, that catchy song by Seven Mary Three, gave the word cumbersome a lot of exposure. What about cucumber?

  16. I don't actually picture you adding OMG to a sentence, Maria.

    For a minute I thought that I had mentioned Pozzo so offhandedly in this post that I had already forgotten it, but of course, you meant here.

    And yes, that's a very nice photo of Pozzo's work over on your blog.

  17. Sean, I saw the Seven Mary Three reference and probably should have added a YouTube or something here. Song titles are an education in themselves.

    I thought of cucumber after (and Peter poses the same thought, which I somehow missed the first time around) but it's a great question. Perhaps that will give me an easy idea for the next post.

  18. I'm thankful that kewl! seems to have passed out of use.

  19. Unfortunately, I saw it used only yesterday, by someone who normally writes in very no-nonsense prose.

  20. Unfortunately, I saw it used only yesterday, by someone who normally writes in very no-nonsense prose.

    I’m sure that person compensates in other ways for that lapse.

  21. Yes, it's an environment absolutely rife with LOLs, so I suspect he's just blending in.

  22. Fortunately, I don't tend to write as I speak.

    The cumbersome expletives of everyday life would be too much for the average reader to bear.

  23. Cucumbersome: That annoying clumsiness inherent in an exceedlingly large, oddly shaped vegetable.

    Pronounce my v-word rather than read it, and you have just the product to ensure that a suicide bomber enters paradise with a baby-smooth complexion: terersil

  24. Maria, I don't think of expeletives as cumbersome so much as cathartic.

    Peter, shoot, that was going to be my gag.

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  26. OK, you can have the next vegetable joke.

  27. No, I was going to use it as a title. Well, if I do, I'll credit you.

  28. This guy is very much more handsome than a horned cucumber!!

  29. I know which one I'd want to meet in a dark alley.