Posted by: Jack Henry | August 18, 2020

Editor’s Corner

Good morning, folks!

Today I was scanning books at home for something fun or interesting to learn about the world of the English language. At some point in the past, I bought a book of Southern sayings that would help me get in touch with all y’all to the east of us here in San Diego. I paged through it and I have to say that it was complete garbage. Nothing new—no buttering body parts and calling them biscuits. It had so little pizzazz that it didn’t even make the cut for one of the local “Little Libraries” (where people create neighborhood lending stations).

The book is now in the recycle bin. My second attempt was looking through Words of a Feather, by Murray Suid. Now that’s what I’m talking about! I’ve settled on the topic of “Room and Rummage.” And I’ve included a photo of my favorite restaurant in Austin, Texas that I’ve never been, too, but hope to visit some day.

I hope you enjoy it!

When you run out of room for your stuff and you decide it’s the perfect time for a rummage sale, your etymological intuition may be what’s inspiring you, for the two words—room and rummage—are closely connected.

Rummage, which today means “odds and ends,” and also “to search for something by going through those odds and ends,” comes from the Middle French word arrumage, “the arrangement of cargo in a ship’s hold.”

Old English had a related word rum, which referred to the space in a home. That word competed for a while with the French word chamber—which gave English chamber pot, gas chamber, and chamber music. Eventually, rum—in the form of room—won out, so now we have dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, and even great rooms. [KC – Not sure where this guy lives!]

But it seems that there’s never enough room, which fact led to the nineteenth-century invention of the rummage sale, which etymologically might be translated as “room-making sale.” The first rummage sale was, appropriately enough, dreamed up by a shipping company to get rid of unclaimed goods from a ship’s rum. Now of course, we hold rummage sales to raise money for worthy causes by getting rid of our unwanted possessions so that we can make room for new things that eventually can be turned into rummage. And so it goes.

Now, what about rum as related to the pirate’s life, you know, “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”? The short answer about the alcoholic drink is that etymologists aren’t sure where it came from. Some say it is a shortening of rumbullion or other terms for liquor from sugar cane or molasses. Others say it may be from the Romany word for “excellent, fine, good, or valuable.” That is the mystery of our wonderful language!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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