Mumpsimus is a word we get from an anecdote—an anecdote that points to a profound human tendency.

In the anecdote an elderly priest of dubious literacy accustomed to saying “Quod ore mumpsimus, Domine” in the Mass is corrected by a younger priest who says it’s Quod ore sumpsimus, Domine.” Sumpsimus means “we have received”; mumpsimus is a non-word.


World Wide Words gives the rest: “According to the version of the incident told in 1517 by Richard Pace, later the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the monk replied that he had said it that way for forty years and ‘I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus,’ ”

So mumpsimus quickly became, especially among Protestants, a term for mulish persistence in an error even after correction, or a term for such a mulish person.

Resistance to correction combined with stubborn persistence in habitual practices is the profound human tendency to which the anecdote and the word point. As Samuel Johnson observed in The Rambler, “we are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction.”

When people are told that, unless they are actually still using typewriters, they should not type two spaces after a period, they often retort that that is how they learned to do it. that is how they continue to do it, and they are not about to change because of your smart-ass superiority.

When the Associated Press Stylebook dropped the over/more than entry—a bogus distinction invented by nineteenth-century American newspaper editors that exists nowhere in English except among American journalists—cries went up from copy editors and journalism teachers who felt that their professional credentials were being demolished.

There is the whole catalogue of what Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules,” such as the prohibitions against ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting infinitives, that are still taught—and obstinately held to—despite having repeatedly been exploded.

I sometimes think that my fellow copy editors may be particularly susceptible to this affliction. We are, after all, people who would rather be right than president (especially since there is no prospect of our ever becoming president). We are the keepers of the stylebook, the hairsplitters of distinctions, the last hands on the text. It must be painful to hear someone suggest (as I have suggested) that a substantial amount of the work they have been doing in their professional careers is trivial and pointless, a distraction from serious editing.

But I suggest that it is liberating to shed misconceptions and misunderstandings. As Will Rogers said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that ain’t so.” It was liberating to me, a graduate student in English, a stickler, and a snob, to discover forty years ago Theodore Bernstein’s Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, which exposed scores of misguided rules and spurious distinctions. And acquaintance with linguists, lexicographers, and other bloggers since I began this blog fourteen years ago has identified a large volume of rubbish that I have been pleased to heave over the side.

Here’s a further impetus to continued study and review of what we think we know. As language evolves, we need to be aware of developments. Things we learned in school or early in our careers may have been of dubious reliability then; they’re often even less worth relying on now.