Mumpsimus When Writing a Novel

Mumpsimus—is there a vaccination for that?

Previously, I blogged about eggcorns and mondegreens when writing a novel, and promised to follow up with other interesting words. Mumpsimus certainly qualifies, don’t you agree?

Writing a Novel

Mumpsimus isn’t a disease, but it is contagious.

While it sounds like a hideous disease, mumpsimus is defined in a nutshell as: the stubborn and persistent use of incorrect language. The mispronunciation can be due to ingrained habits, traditions within families, cultural influences, obstinance, or just plain ignorance.

Mumpsimus is a Word of Multiple Contexts

Sometimes it helps to have examples when sorting out the notion of mumpsimus:

“He still believes the old mumpsimus that children should be seen and not heard.”

Another example: “He’s a bumbling mumpsimus from the backwoods.”

Yet another example: “She says ‘antartic’ instead of ‘antarctic,’ which makes both the word and herself a mumpsimus.”

So, we inadvertently become mumpsimuses when we say mumpsimus words. Perhaps you say calvary instead of cavalry when referring to soldiers on horseback. Others insist they had their eyes dialated, when in fact their eyes were dilated. And we don’t live in a doggy dog world … we live in a dog-eat-dog world.

But try telling that to people who have been raised to think otherwise. They aren’t budging. Mumpsimus.

Oh Really? You Could Care Less?

Consider the following conversation:

“He’s dead to me. I could care less about him,” sniffed Helen.
“Then try harder,” said Paul.
“What?” she asked, confused.
“If you could care less, then do it,” he challenged.
“What?” Helen asked again.
“What you meant to say is, ‘I couldn’t care less,'” Paul informed. “You left out the not.”
Helen rolled her eyes. “Look, grammar Nazi, you say it your way, and I’ll say it my way.”

Obviously, Helen’s word choice and her reaction to Paul is classic mumpsimus.

“Nucular” — A National Mumpsimus

In this context, President George Bush is a mumpsimus for saying the mumpsimus word “nucular” instead of “nuclear,” despite being corrected. A gazillion people called him out on the pronunciation, and it didn’t faze him. He stuck with “nucular,” just as many people stick to their own favorite mispronunciations.

I’m guilty of near brushes with mumpsimus simply because I grew up hearing the word “irregardless.” Believe me, I stopped saying “irregardless” and adopted “regardless” as the go-to word. “Regardless” is the correct use, although the word “irregardless” does appear in the dictionary as a nonstandard word. In other words, “irregardless” won’t get us thrown into literary jail, but it might raise the eyebrows of precision grammarists. Just avoid it and make your writing life less stressful.

Writing a Novel and Using Mumpsimus

Here’s an interesting one: we say width and breadth and therefore heighth, but the correct term is height. I know some authors will never, ever give up that “th,” which is where an editor comes in. That is, unless your character is purposely hooked on mumpsimus. This can be a strategic device when writing a novel.

Authors can use mumpsimus to add something new to dialogue, such as word fights between characters who offend and correct (like Helen and Paul above). Mumpsimus can point to a regional dialect. It can help with characterization — after all, we know who the stubborn, set-in-their-ways, hard-headed characters are when they proudly mispronounce words. If the character insists on uttering a word incorrectly despite being mocked, chastised, and ridiculed for it, they may just have the backbone to solve crimes or hold out for true love, correct?

By the way, the stubborn characters are the mischevious ones, right? Wrong. They are the mischievous ones.

You can read all about the origins of mumpsimus here.

While you’re at it, email for professional editing and ghostwriting services. And in the meantime, have fun with all the gloriously oddball words the English language offers.