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Friday, July 17, 2015

Cummerbund or cumberbund?

First of all, I would like to extend a very warm welcome to the over a hundred new subscribers to Wordlady who heard me on the CBC last weekend. If you missed it, here's the link:
This interview seems to have unleashed a pent-up spate of pronunciation-related questions, so for the next few weeks I will become the Pronunciation Lady. 

Today's topic is somewhat pronunciation-related.
It's wedding season, bringing with it the highly seasonal need to mention this piece of formal attire:

A friend recently asked me if "cumberbund" was an OK variant of "cummerbund". She had a bet riding on it with her husband. This is not the first time I've heard of beers and pizza being the high stakes in a "What's the right word/spelling/pronunciation?" question. I wonder if the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission has ever thought of launching a Language Usage Issue Wager game.

Alas, my friend was out a beer, because "cumberbund" and its close cousin "cumberbun", are, in my judgement, incorrect (though not uncommon, or do I mean uncombon). You will find "cumberbund" listed as a possible variant in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, but in no Oxford dictionaries. Interestingly, the first quotation we have in English for the word includes that intrusive "b" (and I suspect that historical usage accounts for Merriam-Webster's inclusion):
1616   R. Cocks Diary (1883) I. 147   A sample of gallie pottes..chint bramport, and combarbands, with the prices.

Were I writing a dictionary today, I would still not include "cumberbund", as it is vastly outnumbered in the evidence by "cummerbund".

It's not surprising this word does not come trippingly off the tongue, especially as the wide sash-like belt it describes is becoming much less fashionable (so I understand), replaced by vests in men's formal wedding and prom outfits. 

We borrowed the word and the thing from the Indian subcontinent, where the wide sash it describes is part of some traditional attire: 

It comes from the Urdu and Persian kamar (loins) and band (tie or sash), so literally it is a loin cloth (Wordlady's fashion tip: do not wear a loin cloth to your wedding or prom). 

Our first borrowing of the item was as dress military attire, but by the end of the 19th century, cummerbunds had become an item of civilian formal wear.

So, where did that intrusive "b" come from?  I expect it is by analogy with the already existing word "cumber". And I wouldn't be surprised if it is currently being reinforced by the popularity of Benedict Cumberbatch (whose name, by the way, means "Cumbrian stream").

(I tried to find a picture of Cumberbatch in a cummerbund -- try saying that fast -- but no luck.)

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  1. Thank you for the enlightening article! I do not personally own this word, and I doubt I've actually spoken it (incorrectly) but a handful of times in my 72 years. But for some reason it seeped into my head a few minutes ago and I had to find out what the right spelling was. Well written. Thanks again.

  2. In your "judgement" incorrect? In my judgment (the correct spelling of that "j" word) -- not!!!

  3. If you look in any dictionary you will find that both spellings are accepted. Judgement is more common in the UK, judgment in the US. Canadians are split about 50/50 on the question.

  4. Mandela effect strikes again

  5. I'll continue my own research on this word. Sorry, I don't trust anyone who doesn't spell judgment correctly.

  6. You aren’t a lexicographer. She is. She has just told you that there are alternative spellings. How is this confusing? Where are you going to do more “research”? So many people think they are more of an expert than the experts.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.