Monday, August 26, 2013


I was watching the British court room case series Silk on TV last night, and somebody used the word "gumption". It stood out to me for some reason. It doesn't strike me as a word the Brits use so often, but then, it seems like an old-fashioned word over here as well. It's one of those words that we more or less know what it means when we hear it. But what does it mean, exactly? It's hard to think of an exact synonym. I'd characterize it as something like "determination and resourcefulness".

But let's get to it.

The lists three somewhat contradictory meanings:

1. Boldness of enterprise; initiative or aggressiveness.
2. Guts; spunk.
3. Common sense.
I wouldn't have thought common sense had a lot to do with it, but then I also wouldn't it had much to do with aggressiveness either. Boldness and initiative do strike a chord with me, though.
The reason is that "gumption" turns out to be a victim of that curious phenomenon, word drift. Over at Word Detective, a man writes in to say that when he was growing up in Yorkshire in the forties, gumption was commonly used to mean "common sense" or "street smarts" (two fairly distinct things I'd have thought, but never mind), but living in Canada as he does now, it seems to mean something more like courage or nerve. The Word Detective explains the process of association that gradually changed the meaning of the word.

Gumption first entered the vernacular through Scotland. It shows up in print first in Scottish in 1719. Beginnings are obscure, but it looks like another case of that Old Norse by way of Scottish path, as there is an Old Norse word gaumr, meaning attention or heed, that etymologists seem to find a likely connection.

By 1812, gumption had also gained the meaning of initiative. As the Word Detective notes, initiative and common sense often come together in a person who is striving to get ahead, and the 19th century was a good time to live if you had these qualities. Apparently, the quality of initiative or boldness is a more important one to have, as that is the one that stuck, although it does survive in its common sense form in parts of England. (Probably places that hold  on to dialect longer, like Yorkshire).

There are a few other possible meanings for gumption, actually. As usual, the Urban Dictionary has some interesting ones. Personally, I liked Number 4:

The kinda shit that one needs to run across america like Forrest Gump did

I'll leave it to you to scroll on down over there for the predictably saltier ones.

 Thanks to Adam Barnett who put this comic up on his blog Comics Make No Sense and commented, "That's right, ya punks! Show Some gumption!"


  1. And Norseman have been in northern Scotland for many thousands of years!

    Gumption first entered the vernacular through Scotland.

    I'd have said that gumption sounds like a hillbilly word, but what are hillbillies, but descendants of Ulster Scotsmen?

  2. Yes, I think that must be the path. I still didn't figure out why the odd -tion appears on the end. Some kind of odd amalgam I imagine.

  3. Surveying the students in our class, I noticed a pronounced lack of gumption. You cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if you don't have any gumption. I'm suspecting that gumption can be sapped by prolonged exposure to iPads at an early age, and cannot be replaced by a one-a-day vitamin supplement.

  4. I am pretty deficient in gumption myself, Collagemama, so I'm not in a great position to criticize anybody's lack of it.

    Gumption is starting to sound a bit like gumbo, actually.

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  6. I think scientists working at Rockefeller University and Uppsala have developed chemically synthesized artificial gumption that may be ready for human trials by 2016.

  7. Yeah, I'll wait for the FDA to approve it though.

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  9. Yeah, I'd hate to get caught taking illicit gumption. God only knows what that stuff is cut with.

  10. The problem is that you'd need to have gumption to take illegal gumption. It's one of those endless loops.

  11. No, you'd have to have real gumption to sell bogus, under-the-counter gumption.

  12. I am still wondering how that workhorse -tion figures into this particular word.

  13. Seana

    I was with you until you brought up Forrest Gump. Surely the worst movie ever to win Best Picture Oscar. Worse even than Driving Miss Daisy and American Beauty. Even worse I think than Braveheart and Titanic.

  14. Just quoting, Adrian. Not praising.