Etymology: Ruckus/Rumpus


A friend, in a fundraising email for a summer camp, wrote that the camp’s mission statement contains the line: “To create a youthful ruckus of adventure and spirit where souls are ripened and freedom is discovered.” First of all, that is fantastic, and exactly what all camps should be, rather than the dull monotony of soccer balls and flip turns and missed slap shots that were my lot each summer until I was finally old enough to work. Second of all, I have a general fondness for words that begin with “rump” or “ruck,” e.g. rumpled, rucksack, and my favorite, rumpus, as vividly, roaringly rendered by Maurice Sendak.

Generally, “ruckus” is used to soften the blow of a negative situation, a bar fight, say, or the actions of a small mob of angry youths. Sometimes, it is used as a synonym for “hubbub,” or “fuss,” as in “I don’t see what all the ruckus was about.” I loved that the summer camp took the boisterous fun road, the rumpus road, as it were. Indeed, the etymological roads are likely interwined: best guesses point to ruckus being an American fin de siecle-era portmanteau of rumpus and ruction, a colloquial term for disturbance. The earliest usage I found was in the the February 24th, 1882 edition of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Advocate: “It is but right that they should know how the matter stands, and have fair warning to avoid a ‘pending’ rucus of some sort.”

As for rumpus itself, the OED hedges its formation as probably “fanciful,” and “possibly an alteration of robustious,” a mid-eighteenth century word meaning “boisterous, noisy.” LexiconDaily points out another origin possibility: romp, from the Old French ramper “to rear, rise up.” (Ahem, ramparts.)

Originally, rumpus, like ruckus, was a fighting descriptor, but eventually a more playful connotation snuck in, until, in 1950s suburbia, the rumpus room was generally accepted term for playroom, the one part of the house that didn’t need to be kept tidy.

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