If you grew up in Texas, you may remember being reprimanded for tumping. As in, “John Nova Lomax, I can’t believe you tumped out your whole toy box out all over the floor again! You clean this mess up right now!” followed by my stern grandma’s order to leave our playroom and go sit on the stairs for a time-out.

For a kid growing up in Houston, tumping yourself over, or tumping things over, was always trouble. But where does the word come from?

For the tump-uninitiated, here is Merriam-Webster’s definition:

Tump:

  • (intransitive verb) chiefly Southern: to tip or turn over especially accidentally —usually used with over. “Sooner or later everybody tumps over. Nothing to worry about if you don’t get caught under the canoe” —Don Kennard
  • (transitive verb) chiefly Southern: to cause to tip over: overturn, upset—usually used with over

People can tump over. In what was meant as a heartwarming and sentimental Christmas Day tale, the Hood County News of Granbury once told the story of a long-ago toddler named Lillian whose family nicknamed her “Tumpie” because “she was so fat when she tried to walk she would tump over.”

You can also tump over in your canoe, as in Webster’s Kennard citation, or in your catamaran, as in an account from a 1979 Galveston Daily News article, wherein a twelve-year-old boy had to be rescued after he unwisely rowed a raft beyond the breakers so he could be on the scene where a double-hulled sailboat “tumped over” (or “capsized,” as they say everywhere else but Texas).

Hell, even your plans to govern America can be tumped over, as Molly Ivins wrote in a syndicated column about Bill Clinton in 1993. (Add an “r” to tump, and it happened all over again to Hillary Clinton just last year.)

So people can accidentally tump over, and people can intentionally tump things out. In a worst-case scenario, you can tump over and tump everything you were carrying out of your basket. In my experience, it was mostly used in accusatory tones, as with my grandmother busting me for tumping out my toys.

In a piece datelined Nacogdoches, columnist Gary Borders wrote a defense of “tump” in the Longview News-Journal back in 2003, pointing out that the word exists in British English (albeit with an entirely different meaning: namely, a grassy mound of some sort) and suggested a couple of possible etymologies for the Texan usage.

Borders theorizes that the Texan usage derived from “tumpoke,” a regional British colloquialism meaning “to fall head over heels.” His second theory pegs the origins of tump to the Algonquin Indians of the northeastern states, who invented a contraption called a “mattump,” which was a strap worn around the forehead to facilitate carrying large bundles on your back. This theory posits that when you stumbled while carrying such a burden, you had tumped over.

Then there’s this twenty-year-old post on Word Wizard, a word-freak message board:

Tump sounds like a regionalism, and seems as much as anything to be based on onomatopoeia, i.e. being echoic of the thump of the object as it hits the ground. The Eng. Dial. Dict. and thence the [Oxford English Dictionary] do have tump, but based in the Welsh twmp, a small hill, a mound, and itself meaning a small hill, a heap, uneven land and, spec. a pile of stored potatoes. It also offers tumpoke or tompoke, which does mean to fall (head over heels).

I don’t buy Borders’ ideas. “Tumpoke” is just silly, and “mattump” is too complicated. Besides, if it derives from an Algonquin word, why aren’t upstate New Yorkers still tumping over on the land the tribe once inhabited?

I lean more towards the Word Wizard onomatopoeic etymology, although the notion that it derives from a pile of stored potatoes does not even bear discussion. I believe tump is a cross between tip, as in “tip over,” and “dump,” as in “dump out,” and a “thump” is the result. (I thought I invented that etymology, but the Internet beat me to it.) And if I’m wrong, I’ll take my time-out on the stairs.

Read more in our Talk Like a Texan series here. And if you have a question about local parlance that you’d like explored, send us an email.