by Victor A. Moitoret
MY FRIEND Jacob L. Warner started it. Jake is a retired physicist who worked for years at the Office of Naval Research in Washington, and in the basement of his Greenbelt, Maryland home, he patiently hand sets the type for a monthly 8-to-12-or-more-page-plus-cover issue of his amateur journal distributed through the National Amateur Press Association and to interested friends. The 150th consecutive monthly issue of The Boxwooder, for January 1982, was devoted to Jake’s own account: “The Sixth Journal of a Century (Five Years of Centuries)” wherein he detailed his fifth year of bike riding and summarized some aspects of the full five years of having trained for and accomplished 100-mile individual rides.
Now anything Jake writes or prints I find interesting, even when I don’t necessarily agree with it, but the most fascinating part of Jake’s summary for me was his inclusion of a list of “Items Found While Riding” over the five-year period. This astounding inventory ran all the way from such expected items as pairs of pliers and numerous wrenches to a ten-dollar bill and, most incredible of all, four IBM electric typewriters!
But also included in Jake’s list of finds was this:
“Numerous bungie cords.”
Now whenever I find Jake making a typographical, grammatical, or orthographical error, I write him to tell him about it because Jake is one of the minority of amateur editors who really does want to know so the mistake won’t be repeated. Where in the world did he get the idea that bungee cords were spelled bungie?
Careful, though, I thought. I have rarely seen that word in print, myself, though I’ve known the word for years. I keep a set of bungee cords in the trunk of my car for fastening down suitcases on the luggage rack. So, before I could write Jake to correct this spelling, I’d better be sure of my ground and back myself up with a reference.
And there was the rub! Being a self-anointed wordsmith of the variety that loves to read Verbatim and who automatically spells odd place-names backward to see if that could reveal their derivation, I collect dictionaries and books about words. I was astonished, then, to find that a word which had been a rather common part of my own vocabulary for so many years (I couldn’t even remember when I first heard or used it) was not listed in any of the following references in my personal library:
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 1933; The New Century Dictionary, 1975; Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1961; Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, newly revised, 1980; Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, New Edition, 1972 (UK); 6,000 Words: A Supplement to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1976; The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, Mispronounced Words, Laurence Urdang, 1972; The Perma Cross Word Puzzle Dictionary, Frank Eaton Newman, 1942; A Browser’s Dictionary and Native’s Guide to the Unknown American Language, John Ciardi, 1980; Families of Words, Mario Pei, 1962; Phrase and Word Origins, Alfred H. Holt, 1936 (Dover 1961); Look It Up: A Dictionary of American-English Usage, Margaret Nicholson, 1957; An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Ernest Weekly, 1921 (Dover 1967); The American Language, H. L. Mencken, Fourth Edition 1980, with Supplements One and Two.
Mencken does mention the word bungey, not found in any of the other references, as being a word which Benjamin Franklin had borrowed from the English meaning “drunk.” But not a bungee in the bunch! Nor was the word to be found in my 1975 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. I remembered I had bought bungee cords in France – strong elastic cords with metal hooks on both ends – but I couldn’t find bungee in my Nouveau Petit Larousse either – perhaps the French have their own word for the item.
There was one more chance: I phoned the Western New Mexico University Library and asked the young man at the desk to look up the word for me in the “big” dictionary (i.e. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). My spirits were boosted, even as my wonderment increased when this young college student responded, “Oh, yes, I know the word; hold on a minute.” He came back to read me this definition:
bungee (origin unknown) An auxiliary spring device, esp. on the movable controls of an airplane designed to make the movement of the controls easier and to limit their motion; also an elasticated cord used as a fastening or shock-absorbing device, esp. for planes on the deck of a carrier.
Well, that could explain why the word was so familiar to me, of course, since I had served aboard carriers most of the time from 1941 to 1949. But now I had the authority for my spelling as opposed to Jake’s, so I could write to him.
My curiosity had been piqued, though, and I wondered whether the word, if it did originate in the armed forces, might have percolated into English English through the RN or the RAF. I wrote off to query two logophiliac friends in England. Had they heard the word? Could they find it in any English dictionaries? Both responded like hounds to the horn!
Kenneth Hardacre, printing craftsman par excellance and retired secondary school teacher of English, replied first with this:
“Bungee, bungie, or bungy has proved quite fascinating. It appears in none of my usual working dictionaries (of which I have a considerable number), not even in the most up-to-date one, the Sixth Edition of the Concise Oxford, which has drawn on information gathered from the next supplement to the big OED and which is particularly good on American usage. (There has recently appeared an Oxford American dictionary. I haven’t seen this yet: I plan to hunt it down on my next trip to town.) Finally I consulted my own big Oxford English Dictionary (in many volumes, reduced to two photographically) and there at last was BUNGEE – two, in fact: (1) Bungee = Pongee (a traveling grain merchant in the east) and (2) glossed, mysteriously, as ‘? some kind of fabric.’ Curiouser and curiouser!
“But what is most curious of all – a fact I have kept up my sleeve from you till this moment – I have known the word ever since my schooldays in West Riding of Yorkshire, but meaning “a rubber,” i.e. an eraser for pencil marks! Your American use of the word is quite new to me. All this, I thought, must be taken further; so I have written to Mrs. L. S. Burnett, a senior editor of the Oxford Dictionaries, with whom I have corresponded on a previous occasion. I will let you know what comes of this.”
And he did, too. Lesley S. Burnett replied to Ken: “In the sense with which you are familiar, the word is in fact recorded in volume 1 of A Supplement to the OED. I enclose a photocopy of the relevant page. Our files now also contain a number of examples in the sense known to your American friend. They appear to bear out the information provided by him (which coincides largely with that in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). The evidence suggests that, at the moment at least, bungee cord is not used in the UK. The origin of the term unfortunately remains unknown.”
The photocopy of the page from the Supplement says:
bungie, bungy. Slang. Also bunje(e, bunjie, bunjy. (Origin unknown)
a. India-rubber; a rubber. b. (A nickname for) a Naval physical-training instructor.
and examples are quoted for both uses.
Jake himself was also pursuing the chase. He found and sent me an advertisement from a bicycle supply catalog published in Ohio which listed “bungie cords.” On the other hand, he did find the bungee spelling in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.
Then my other British friend, Harry Driffield, retired senior civil servant who used to meticulously edit the Hydrographer’s Annual Report, knowing how carefully I would be scrutinizing it for any errors, replied as well:
“It’s not in the Shorter Oxford: it’s not in my old 1911 Webster; it’s not in the Children’s Encyclopedia; it’s not in any of a half a dozen dictionaries or any of half a dozen assorted encyclopedias in the Taunton Library and it was not in my own personalized memory bank. But…
“It does appear in the full Oxford, but as you will see, not very helpfully.” And he quoted the meaning given as “some kind of fabric (1760).” Then he continued:
“I asked Cdr. Glen (tidal expert) who immediately got the rubber connotation but couldn’t particularise. Just the same with Captain Winstanley (remembered calling an eraser at school ‘bungee’) and with Admiral Haslam…. Several other people were unhelpful but interested.” And then Harry also found it in the “big” Webster’s at last and remarked: “A most interesting chase – let’s do it again.”
But the chase was not ended. What should appear fortuitously just about then in my mailbox but an advertisement from D. R. I. Industries, Inc. in Bloomington, Minnesota, who market nuts and bolts, screws, washers, electrical connectors, and similar items by mail for home workshops. There was a “free gift” flyer included which pictured in full color: “Handy… convenient… easy-to-use Bungi Cords!” I wrote immediately to the president of the corporation to ask him to please find out what authority his advertising people had for that spelling. The prompt reply came from Larry Lefavor, Senior Copywriter for the firm, and was quite honest:
“Thank you very much for your help regarding the correct spelling of the word ‘bungee.’
“I had the same problem you did, in that I could find no source for the correct spelling. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to do any research to determine how it should be spelled.
“The only thing I can tell you is that I remember my grandfather calling those elastic cords with hook ends, ‘bungee cords.’ I’ve since heard many others refer to them as bungee cords. That is why I chose that word to describe them.
“But, as I said, I had to guess at the correct spelling. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong. Now that you have supplied me with the proper spelling, I will see that our advertising is corrected.”
Finally, I mentioned my research to James Essick, Librarian at Western New Mexico University. I thought Jim might help because he had been the owner of the local bicycle shop in Silver City and would probably have even sold some bungee cords himself. Yes, of course, he told me, he knew them, and he spelled it bungee without looking it up anywhere. He had known the word for a long time, dating back to his boyhood experience as an Air Explorer Scout when his post had Piper Cubs and Cessnas. Then he, too, had naval experience, in the escort carrier USS Salerno Bay where they used bungee cord to tie down the Corsair fighters to the flight deck gratings.
Jim later called back with additional research of his own. He had failed to find the word in Mitford Matthew’s A Dictionary of Americanisms, 1951, and he confirmed what I found in Mencken when he found that Harold Wentworth’s A Dictionary of American Slang cited use of bungey from 1730 as meaning “drunk.” In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eric Partridge, Seventh Edition, Jim found the British usages already cited for bungie and bungy as “A typist’s eraser (ca. 1935)” and the bungyman as a physical training instructor in the (Royal) Navy. There was also, however, bungy meaning “Anything short and thick” and bungy man as “An India-rubber man.”
So, there it is for your own private pursuit. Look in your local bike or motorcycle shop or auto supply store. How do they spell those elasticized cords? (And my thanks to Jake for sending me off on this absorbing lark!)
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene; initial is unknown and was obtained from Frederica Postman’s shop in Palo Alto. Inks are Van Son Niagara, Rota Brown, and 40904 Black. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 475 copies; the text on an SP 15 Vandercook and the cover on a 10 x 15 C & P at The Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland.