In bumf lies salvation

I need to be more frivolous this week. Bumf is an informal word used to describe, in a slightly derogatory way, the superfluous or unnecessary paper documents that fill our everyday life. These may include forms, government documents, publicity material, junk mail etcetera.

Now if you are gentile and don’t like crudity be aware that this fascinating little story does get a little vulgar in its subject matter. Unsurprisingly, the story of bumf starts with bum …

In international English you will come across the word bum in two quite distinct ways. British English uses bum to describe your backside, bottom, or posterior. In American English a bum is a good-for-nothing, a loafer or a layabout.

Although some might equate a vagrant to their bottom in social status it is not the source of the word. The English word, bum came into existence a long time ago from an unknown source (Middle English in the 1300s). It is not related to the American word, bum, which probably comes more recently from the German word, bummeln, which means to loaf.

Bum, although not considered a hard-core swear word, has a hint of vulgarity about it—albeit it is only slightly naughty. It is a word you can use in front of young children. It did start off as a legitimate word for our backside.

Arse, bum’s word cousin, is an Old English word (aers) for buttocks. It also started as a legitimate word but, perhaps because it is very much older and has had more time to fall from grace, has become even more disreputable. Arse is a word you would not use in front of your youngest children.

Fodder, is an Old English word, for food, especially for cattle food. It also is used for a person or thing regarded only as material for a specific use, such as young men in war time being referred to as cannon fodder.

Now, toilet paper at some time became known as bum fodder. However, the expression was more commonly used metaphorically for literary works, books, and poetry. That is, works judged to be of such poor literary quality that their pages could only be used for toilet paper. It seems an easy insult and the concept of using lesser works of literature as toilet paper was a recurring theme in 17th century literature:

Thomas Dekker (1609) in The Gull’s Hornbook

… you shall sharpen the wits of all the eating gallants about you, and do them great pleasure to ask what pamphlets or poems a man might think fittest to wipe his tail with.

John Dryden (1682) in Mac Flecknoe:

From dusty shops neglected authors come,
Martyrs of Pies, and Reliques of the Bum.

John Oldham (1683) A Satire:

And all thy deathless Monuments of Wit,
Wipe Porters Tails or mount in Paper-kite?

A concept that continued well into the 20th century with a quote variously attributed to Voltaire, Churchill or German composer, Max Reeger:

I am seated in the smallest room in the house.
I have your letter before me. Soon it will be behind me.

Bum fodder became abbreviated to bumf (or sometimes bumpf) and, over the last century, has moved away from its literal meaning. The novelist, Virginia Wolf, used it in a letter of 1912 asking “is this letter written upon bumpf?’

Bumf is a fascinating word because we can see it moving away from a playful and vulgar construction to a meaningful word that has cast off its past and gained a respectability not given to its parent. Evelyn Waugh in Officers and Gentlemen (1955):

He did not, even in his extremity, quite abandon his faith in the magic of official forms. In bumf lay salvation.

Bumf has joined the mainstream by disguising its parentage. By using a hint of the exotic it has fooled us into not realising its evolution from some very old English vulgarity. It also shows how generations of English speakers and writers have conspired against politeness to bring this wonderful and graphic word into the language. It epitomises how language truly works—not by logic and appropriateness but by imagination and descriptiveness. Bumf is a triumph.

Acknowledgement: There is a great blog post by Michael Gilleland from which I referenced most of the older quotes.