Sunday, August 09, 2009

Hooray! It's a Bumper Crop of Chili

Perfectly timed and amounts of rain has brought us an early and big crop of green chili - the real reason for living.

I was excited by news of the bumper crop. Then my excitement turned to curiosity. What does the word "bumper" have to do with a crop of anything?

Ah, never fear. There is always The Word Detective to consult.

From a November, 2000 column, titled "IS IT OK TO PET THE COW?"

Dear Word Detective:

We recently moved out into the country and have heard the phrase "bumper crop" thrown about. Where did this phrase originate? My husband thinks that there must be something called a bumper at the top of a grain bin and when the bin is full there is a "bumper crop." What do you think? -- Marcia Timmerman, via the internet.

Well, I think the first thing you should do is to warn your husband not to mention his theory to any of the local farmers. Take it from me, nothing launches the average farmer into gales of helpless laughter like the innocent antics of city folks. The first autumn we lived in the country I happened to notice that they were harvesting corn in the field across the road and went over to watch. So shoot me. I was curious. Two years later I am still known around here as "The weirdo who likes to watch corn harvesters."

Of course, if you just leave out the "gizmo in the grain bin" theory and ask your neighbors what "bumper crop" really means, I'll bet they won't know the answer either, because the "bumper" part really doesn't have anything to do with farming.

"Bumper" in this sense is just a superlative, meaning "unusually large or impressive." What makes "bumper crop" seem mysterious is that this "jumbo" sense of "bumper" is now very rare anywhere except in the phrase "bumper crop." But back in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to hear shopkeepers talk of "bumper business" in the holiday season or even "bumper traffic" on city streets. "Bumper" as a noun was even used as theatrical slang for a sold-out house at a performance.

The logic of this "large" sense of "bumper" is a little hazy, but a clue may be found in its earliest use. A "bumper" in the 17th century was a large glass of beer or wine that was filled to the brim, i.e., with the liquid literally bumping against the rim of the glass. Such abundance was obviously considered a good thing, as "bumper crops" of just about anything have been ever since.


Odette said...

You are watching seven pounds? What do you think of it? I like the idea, but the movie takes too long to take you to the core of it; it could have been a great story, but I think they made it very difficult to stay interested in the movie itself.

Dennis R. Plummer said...

I was sort of slowed by the pacing, too. But my curiosity held me to the end and I liked the payoff.