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 out of the literary world, 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.

About the Author

Hi! I'm fortunate to be one of those creative types who work in the world of words. I knew very early on that I would be a freelance writer and editor. What I didn't know was that I'd end up interviewing some of the most fascinating public figures around! I also write about wonderful community-minded people who are making a difference in the world. I'm an English major and proud alumnus of University of Houston. Through the years I've studied various writing and reporting disciplines and have built a career writing papers, press releases, announcements, speeches, toasts, newsletters and obituaries. I've also written many magazine articles for some of the best publications around. As a ghost writer, online editor, contributing editor and news reporter I've learned a thing or two about people and the stories they feel compelled to share. I love teaching what I know best. As an English tutor (ESL and Special Education) as well as a certified English, Language Arts and Reading teacher, I share insights into the writing disclipine. I earned my teaching credentials well after establishing a writing career. Bringing real life experience into a classroom is very rewarding, especially when working with special needs students. I specialize in editing, ghost writing or co-writing books for aspiring authors. And yes, I have a couple "Great American Novels" of my own percolating at this point. The advice any good writing expert will give is, "Finish what you start." We'll see as time goes on if my own books end up on your Kindle. If you are over your head with a writing project, consider hiring an editor. That's what we do . . . a good writer / editor's job is to make your manuscript, press release, article, speech or paper sparkle.

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