Monday, March 8, 2010

Mumpsimus and Sumpsimus

In an August 1516 letter to Henry Bullock, Desiderius Erasmus speaks of the willful stubbornness of those who opposed his recent Greek edition of the New Testament on the grounds that no changes to the text of Scripture should be permitted unless by a general council of the church. He makes his point cleverly by referring to the story of a priest who had recited the Latin postcommunio prayer in the canon of the Mass, where the word 'sumpsimus' (the first-person plural perfect indicative of 'sumere,' or 'to take up') was mistakenly pronounced as 'mumpsimus'. Even after being corrected, the elderly priest, according to Richard Pace's (see below) account, replied, "I will not change my old 'mumpsimus' for your new 'sumpsimus'." Erasmus himself wrote:

There is another problem, which let them clear up if they can. Do they allow any changes in Holy Writ, or none at all? If they allow any, why not examine in the first place whether it is right or no to make the change? If they do not, what will they make of those passages in which the existence of a corruption is too obvious to be denied or overlooked? Would they rather imitate on this point the mass-priest who refused to change the word mumpsimus which he had used for twenty years, when someone told him that sumpsimus was what he ought to say?

The story was repeated by another of Erasmus' correspondents, Richard Pace, in De Fructu Qui ex Doctrina Precipitur (1517), whom the OED erroneously credits as the originator of the word 'mumpsimus' (Pace himself credits Erasmus for the story in a letter to Erasmus dated August 5, 1517: "They ought to be satisfied by your story of the mass-priest and his mumpsimus for sumpsimus.").

William Tyndale was the first to employ mumpsimus in a book, The Practice of Prelates (1530), where he refers to Roman Catholic theologians as "mumpsimuses of divinity."

On December 24, 1545, King Henry VIII gave a speech in which he lectured Parliament on the shame of religious divisions plaguing England at that time, and famously declared that "some by to styff in Mumpsimus, other be to busy and curious in their newe Sumpsimus". Ironically, Henry here echoed Tyndale, the man whom he hunted to the death for his efforts to publish the Bible in English, the martyr whose last words were reported to be "Lord! Open the King of England's eyes." Henry was never of Tyndale's spiritual mind, but it seems that Tyndale's expression made an impression.

In this way, over the course of time, and in the centuries since, Erasmus' tale of an old priest's stubborn refusal to correct his Latin liturgy bequeathed a word to our vocabulary that is still used proverbially today to describe a willful, obstinate adherence to an erroneous notion or tradition in the face of honest correction.

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