English language Uncategorized

Crumbs from the table

Q: My father and I got to talking the other day about whether there’s such a word as “crumby” to describe the state of something covered in crumbs. Of course “crummy” and “crumbly” don’t work. Is “crumby” an existing word?

A: Until recently, there was an adjective spelled “crumby” and meaning full of crumbs.  It’s in our 1956 copy of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.).

But the word has since disappeared from mainstream dictionaries, which now list it as a mere variant spelling of the identical-sounding slang word “crummy.”

How did this happen? Let’s start with the noun “crumb.”

The word for a small particle of bread (or the like) was first recorded about 975, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original Old English word was written as cruma and had no “b.” Like the modern German counterpart, krume, it was derived  from old Germanic sources that had no “b” either.

In fact, “crumb” had no “b” for almost a millennium. The prevalent English spelling until the end of the 18th century was “crum,” a spelling that was still recognized into 19th century.

How did the silent “b” creep in?

The OED says it “probably appeared first in the derivative crumble (where it has also invaded the pronunciation).” The new spelling was probably influenced as well by words like “dumb” and “thumb,” the OED suggests. 

The first adjective form of the word, which began appearing in the early 1500s, was spelled “cromely” or “crumly.”

It was used to describe something that was crumb-like or likely to crumble. (This word is now our modern “crumbly,” which today is both spelled and pronounced with a  “b.”)

The next adjective form was “crummy” (1567), originally meaning crumbly or crumb-like.

This was followed in the 1700s by the new spelling “crumby,” which first meant full of or strewn with crumbs (1731), and later meant breadcrumb-like (1767). 

But the old “crummy” spelling survived. It became a slang term in the mid-19th century (occasionally spelled “crumby”) to mean lice-ridden, filthy, or otherwise distasteful.

And this slang word – now meaning cheap, shabby, or generally lousy – became so popular that it practically wiped out any notion of breadcrumbs.

Never underestimate the power of slang.

Although the OED doesn’t label the old “crumby” as obsolete – at least not yet – and although it’s still used by bakers and others on the Internet, current dictionaries have abandoned it in the old breadcrumb sense.

So if there’s any chance of being misunderstood (as in “Your skirt is crumby”), we wouldn’t recommend using “crumby” to mean covered in crumbs. And no, pronouncing the “b,” as in CRUM-bee, isn’t the answer.

Maybe someday the meaning of “crumbly” will widen to mean covered in crumbs. Meanwhile, we’ll simply have to use more words than one to describe that messy condition.

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