The Grammarphobia Blog

A few things to chew on

Q: I’d like to know whether the following sentence is correct: “I stayed there in front of the door, ruminating my sourness, until I heard them take their leave.” It feels to me as if it should be “ruminating on,” but my writing partner disagrees.

A: The verb “ruminate” can be transitive (“She’s ruminating her future”) as well as intransitive (“She’s ruminating” or “She’s ruminating on her future”).

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for both usages going back to the 16th century. In fact, Shakespeare’s characters “ruminate” both transitively (with a direct object) and intransitively (without one).

In Titus Andronicus (1588), for example, Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, uses “ruminate” with the direct object “plots”: “Knock at his study, where, they say, he keeps, / To ruminate strange plots of dire revenge.”

In Henry VIII (1613), the Surveyor uses the word without a direct object: “The monk might be deceived; and that ’twas dangerous for him / To ruminate on this so far.”

The word “ruminate” is derived from the Latin ruminare (to chew the cud), and the English verb is still sometimes used that way: “The Holsteins are ruminating in the field.”

The cud, by the way, is the regurgitated grass chewed by those grazing Holsteins and other ruminants (sheep, goats, deer, etc.)

The word “ruminate” was first used in English in its literal — that is, bovine — sense in 1547, says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

But it was used even earlier, as far back as 1533, to mean “turn over and over in the mind” or “meditate deeply upon,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

One last thing to chew on: The earliest published reference in the OED for the noun “rumination” is from Shakespeare. In As You Like It (1588-1600), Jaques tells Rosalind of “my travels, in which my often / rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.”

Are you puzzled by that reference to “humorous sadness”? In Shakespeare’s day, “humorous” (derived from the bodily humors or fluids) meant moody, fanciful, or peevish.

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