Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Taking Your Lumps"

Greg H. of Boston, MA writes in with today's Mailbag Friday question: "When President Obama was interviewed about Tom Daschle's decision to bow out of the nomination process for Health and Human Services, he gave this mea culpa: 'Did I screw up in this situation? Absolutely. I'm willing to take my lumps.' I understand he means that he's taking the blame for the situation, but where do the 'lumps' come from?"

Taking one's lumps is a colorful American colloquialism that dates back 80 years or so, and it was originally associated with rough physical activities — from contact sports like boxing and football to more violent confrontations — that can leave the participants battered and bruised. A lump can mean "an abnormal protuberance," so in common parlance it came to refer to a swelling or contusion caused by harsh physical treatment. If you can accept that kind of treatment without complaining about it, then you're taking (or getting) your lumps.

The earliest example I've found of the original literal sense of "taking one's lumps" comes in a bit of verse from Grantland Rice's syndicated column, "The Sportlight," published in the Atlanta Constitution on Oct. 21, 1928. Rice was a well-known versifier of the sporting world, most famously contributing this couplet (from the poem "Alumnus Football"):

For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name,
He marks — not that you won or lost — but how you played the Game.

In the 1928 column, Rice presents his readers with a poem by another writer, Robert Normile Rose, entitled "Exhortation." It's an ode (or more technically, an apostrophe) to a young football player, and it ends thusly:

With limber legs to push you
And the ball beneath your arm,
There would be no doubt or question,
No single thought of harm.
So now while Youth is calling
It will not pay to whine,
But take your lumps and bruises
For the sake of Auld Lang Syne.

Not surprisingly, "taking/getting one's lumps" was frequently used in pugilistic contexts. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes a usage from 1930, in Erskine Caldwell's novel Poor Fool, about a hard-luck boxer named Blondy Niles. Another character is dreading a confrontation with him: "Blondy... is going to be standing on the corner below the cafe waiting for me to hand over some lumps to me." Also in 1930, a New York Times sports column told of the All-American football player Roy "Father" Lumpkin, who had moved on to a boxing career. Lumpkin got knocked out in one of his bouts, which allowed the sportswriter to say that "Father Lumpkin was getting his lumps."

The giving and receiving of "lumps" wasn't always so sporting. A 1932 exposé in the New York Times revealed that "giving him his lumps" was an expression used by police officers for the "third degree," i.e., extracting information from prisoners by beating them up. And a 1935 report on "The Psychology of Prison Language" provided the perspective of those on the receiving end of such treatment: "get the lumps" is glossed as meaning "to [be] beaten up."

By the mid-'30s, "taking one's lumps" was an expression known to schoolchildren as well. The Oct. 9, 1935 edition of the Champaign-Urbana Evening Courier carried a column by the educator Angelo Patri advising that "adults should be neutral when the children quarrel." It tells of a fight between cousins Ralph and Johnnie, where Johnnie gets chastised by Ralph's mother. Johnnie tells her, "He ought to take his lumps as well as anybody else." And Ralph actually agrees: "Never mind us, mother. We've got to take our lumps." Patri concludes, "Let the boys take their lumps as they come."

More metaphorical "lumps" also began emerging around that time. A 1935 Washington Post article explained that "[baseball pitcher] Dizzy Dean is popular with rivals again because he took his 'lumps' in good humor and bounced back to lead the league after overworking himself in 25 games." I don't think the writer meant that Dean had suffered some sort of physical harm, just that he had learned to accept his setbacks and overcome them with equanimity.

This is the meaning that has persisted, and the original more violent imagery of bruising punishment has faded to the background. Now you're more likely to hear people pride themselves on their ability to "take their lumps" where they're simply the object of criticism or reproach. This is how Obama meant it, and he's hardly alone in the political world. In fact, his erstwhile rival John McCain used the expression during the campaign. Back in July, McCain defended his record on working to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. "I cast a lot of hard votes, as did the other Republicans and Democrats who joined our bipartisan effort," McCain said. "I took my lumps for it without complaint."

It's a good thing, I'd argue, that Obama has announced his facility for taking (figurative) lumps this early in his administration, because the way things are shaping up he's going to need to be prepared for political combat that is a great deal more brutal.

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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 6th 2009, 1:18 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
In the spirit of Visual and Thesaurus, consider the redneck classic "pop knots" (the knots that are raised by a "pop" of the fist "I'll put a pot knot on your head"; also occurring on the knuckles of the fist "I got a pop knot from his head") and gangland "pumpkin head" (the condition of having such a beating that the entire head is covered with lumps to the point of resembling a pumpkin). Of course, both are related to the physical manifestation of lumps. Neither seems particularly suited to the idea of accepting and overcoming setbacks.

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