Answer Man

August 18, 2014

Answer Man: Missour-ee or Missour-ahh?

Answer Man

Got questions? You've come to the right place

Recently I've heard TV and radio folks use the term "bumbershoot" for umbrella. How did that start? -- Herbert Mersinger, of Collinsville

In the 19th century, Americans apparently enjoyed playing with words, facetiously turning old standards into what they felt were new, ear-grabbing sounds, according to etymologist Michael Quinion, of worldwidewords.org.

Perhaps it was boredom, perhaps creativity, but whatever the reason the result was a steady rain of new words like bumbershoot. And as you can see, some of these cutesy sounds have survived.

In the case of bumbershoot, they simply toyed with the word that already existed, much like that 1964 novelty song "The Name Game" by Shirley Ellis, which asks you to take a name and add all kinds of letters and rhyming sounds to it. In the case of umbrella, they turned "umbra" into "umber," added a "b" at the beginning and then switched "chute" (from parachute) with its homonym "shoot."

If you thought "parachute" is too new a word for that explanation, you'd be wrong. Parachute actually popped out in English as early as 1785 after the hot-air ballooning exploits of the French Montgolfier brothers. "Umbrella" dates back to the early 1600s and was taken from an Italian word for sunshade. (Umbra, of course, is Latin for shadow.)

Quinion says the first example of bumbershoot came in 1896, according to Jonathan Lighter's "Random House American Dictionary of Slang." There were even variations, such as bumbersol (probably from parasol) and bumberell. By 1910, only bumbershoot survived, leading to this rare written example by L. Frank Baum ("The Wizard of Oz") in his 1912 book "Sky Island":

"This umbrella has been in our family years, an' years, an' years. But it was tucked away up in our attic an' no one ever used it 'cause it wasn't pretty. 'Don't blame' em much,' remarked Cap'n Bill, gazing at it curiously. 'It's a pretty old-lookin' bumbershoot.'"

People unfamiliar with the word sometimes assume it is of British origin after hearing Dick Van Dyke use the word in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." But Quinion reminds them that "Me Ol' Bamboo" was written by the decidedly American brothers Richard and Robert Sherman.

So Seattle shows its patriotism when it calls its annual gala the Bumbershoot international music and arts festival.

With so much news right now from that state west of the river, I was just wondering why some say "Missour-ee" while others say "Missour-ahh"? -- Don Gillen, of Belleville

There's a funny Web site that lists dozens of ways to tell whether you're from Missouri. Included are such classics as "You know what 'Home of the Throwed Roll' means," "You've seen people wear bib overalls to funerals" -- and "You pronounce Missouri with an 'ah' at the end."

In other words, they don't know how to pronounce the name of their own state -- and that is true for many. Show me, you say? OK, here's the proof:

Although there is some contention over its origin and meaning, there is no doubt the word has Native American roots. Some say it's Algonquin for "river of the big canoes" while others insist it's an Algonquin-Dakota mix meaning "big muddy."

Either way, I'd argue that if you are writing down a foreign word phonetically, you wouldn't scribble "Missouri" if someone said "Missourah." After all, you don't fly to Miamah Beach in December or visit the Hopah tribe in Arizona. And Webster's agrees, decreeing that the only pronunciation of the Indian tribe is mi-ZOOR-ee.

However, the dictionary does concede that the state is sometimes pronounced with an "ah" or "uh" sound. How did that start? As the story goes, the illiterate early state settlers thought they were being country bumpkins when they said "mizooree." They figured it was like saying "Caroliney" when they should be saying "Carolina" or singing the Beverly Hillbillies theme ("Said Californey is the place you ought to be ...") when they should be using just plain California.

So, just as Stan Freberg winds up singing "He doesn't plant cotting" in his hilarious "Elderly Man River" routine, these folks thought the high-falutin', citified pronunciation was "missourah." Thus began the controversy that continues today -- helped along even by us educated U. of Mo. grads who, for somewhat different reasons, insist on spicing up our love for our Tigers by chanting "Mizzou-rah."

Today's trivia

What Top 10 song about a feline apparently was released with the title "Around a Piano"?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Even in the 1860s, they were worried about the mass slaughter of elephants for their ivory. So in 1869 John Wesley Hyatt invented the first industrial plastic (he called it Celluloid) and used it to make billiard balls. Unfortunately, it occasionally exploded during production, making it impractical.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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