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).
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.