English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is “bumblebee” a buzz word?

Q: I am working on a discussion of bumblebees, and looking for the origin of the “bumble” portion of the word. What I haven’t been able to figure out is if “bumble” refers to the buzzing/humming noise or the clumsy flying. Any thoughts?

A: The “bumble” that means to buzz or hum (the one we find in “bumblebee”) and the “bumble” that means to flounder around may or may not be related.

We say “may or may not” because there are differences of opinion about this. Rather than split any hairs at the beginning, let’s start with the etymologies given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first “bumble” (to buzz or hum) was originally recorded in the 1380s. It was derived from the old verbs “boom” and “bum,” which the OED describes as echoic words that imitated a buzzing, a humming, or the low resonant sound a bittern makes, the OED says.

To this day, the soft, low call of the bittern, a marsh bird in the heron family, is described as a “boom.” You can listen to it, courtesy of the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

In fact, the OED’s earliest written example of the verb “bumble” is a reference to the bittern’s call: “As a Bitore bombleth in the Myre.” (From “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, circa 1386.)

This later example refers to flies that bumble: “Much bumbling among them all.” (From John Heywood’s parable The Spider and the Flie, 1556.)

And this one refers to bees that bumble: “Bumbling of Bees.” (From a 1693 translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a series of five novels by François Rabelais.)

The noun “bumblebee,” which we think was inevitable and simply begged to be invented, first showed up as “bombyll bee” in the mid-1500s: “I bomme, as a bombyll bee dothe.” (From a 1530 work of John Palsgrave, a tutor in the household of Henry VIII.)

Etymologically, a “bumblebee” is a bee that bumbles. And this noun (sometimes written as “bumble bee” or “bumble-bee”) replaced an earlier word for the same critter, “humblebee,” which is literally a bee that humbles. (In the 14th century, to “humble” meant to buzz or hum like a bee.)

The OED defines “humble-bee” (which it hyphenates) as “a large wild bee, of the genus Bombus, which makes a loud humming sound; a bumble-bee.” (We should add that the taxonomic name Bombus is derived from the Latin noun bombus, an imitative word that means a hum or boom.)

This bucolic example is the earliest known appearance of “humblebee” in writing: “In Juyll the greshop & the humbylbee in the medow.” (From Treatyse on Fysshynge Wyth an Angle, probably written sometime before 1450 by Dame Juliana Barnes. “Angle” is an old word for a fish hook.)

It’s probable, however, that “humblebee” existed long before it was discovered in a written document. Based on comparisons with other Germanic formations, Oxford suggests it may have existed in Old English, possibly as humbol-béo.

Though “humblebee” was eclipsed by the more popular “bumblebee”—probably because of that nice alliteration of b’s—the old word continued to show up into the 19th century.

Charles Darwin apparently preferred it: “Humble-bees alone visit the common red clover … as other bees cannot reach the nectar.” (From On the Origin of Species, 1859.)

Now for that other “bumble,” which means to screw up or bungle or flounder helplessly.

That “bumble” dates from the 1500s in English writing, and is “onomatopoeic” in origin, the OED says, meaning that the word sounds like what it names.

Oxford’s two earliest sightings of the verb are both from the same source, Sir Thomas More’s 1532 polemic against the Protestant scholar William Tyndale:

“The thinge wher about he hath bombled all thys while. … Which argument Tindall hath all thys while bumbled aboute to soyle.”

Thomas More used “bumble,” the OED says, in this sense: “To bungle over; to do in a bungling manner.” The verb is also used intransitively—that is, without an object—in the sense “to blunder, flounder,” the dictionary says.

As we mentioned, Oxford says the verb is onomatopoeic in origin. The dictionary refers the reader to similar verbs that are probably onomatopoeic, like “fumble,” “jumble,” “mumble,” “rumble,” “stumble,” and “tumble.”

All of those verbs do have in common a general sense of awkward disorder or confusion. And they end in the frequentative suffix “-le,” which expresses a repeated action or movement.

However, another source, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, has a different explanation for the “bumble” that means to “bungle” or “botch.” Chambers says it refers “to the noise of booming or buzzing about.”

If that’s true, then the two “bumbles”—one meaning to buzz or hum and the other to blunder—aren’t separate verbs after all. The “bungle” or “botch” sense of the verb was merely an extension of the earlier meaning.

Chambers interprets the Thomas More quotations above as using “bumble” in both senses of the verb—that is, he felt Tyndale was buzzing (perhaps droning on) as well as floundering about.

Consequently, both senses of the verb ultimately reflect the same echoic notion: the sounds made by bees, flies, and bitterns, according to Chambers.

Are the two “bumbles” related? With etymologists divided, you can form your own opinion.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.