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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a derisory amount of money; an insultingly small tip

Here’s a real mystery. There’s scarcely any written record of this word, but screeds of anecdotal evidence for it; if you’re a Brit, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard this word at some point, most likely from your parents or grandparents.

A flumpence is a tiny amount of money—especially one carrying the implication of being insultingly small or undersized.

That’s a word you won’t find in the OED, the English Dialect Dictionary, the Scottish National Dictionary, nor Eric Partridge’s or Jonathon Green’s slang dictionaries. But it is most definitely a word:

ALBERT: [Out of the corner of his mouth.] How much do you reckon on the two oil paintings?
HAROLD: Flumpence.
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Steptoe and Son, ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mourning’ (BBC broadcast, 1972)

For this word to turn up in the script of one of British television’s most popular sitcoms at the time—written by two of the BBC’s most celebrated writers at the time—suggests that it was fairly well known in the early 1970s. So where did it come from?

A tentative guess might point towards flummery. Originally the name of a kind of blancmange-style dessert of sweetened milk and eggs, flummery has been more figuratively used to mean ‘empty words’ or ‘humbug’ since the 1700s. There’s certainly a precedent for it inspiring fanciful extensions too (flummadiddle came to be ‘nonsense’ in nineteenth century English), and so it’s more than likely that flumpence is just another later invention using it as a template.

But then, there’s this:

And so, in the fulness of time, there was issued a General Routine Order, instituting the appointment ... of an officer, to be known as a “Clearance Officer” ... who, stationed at the most convenient spot in the divisional area, would ... examine, classify, direct, and control all traffic whatsoever, military (personnel or stores), civil or prisoners of war, upon the forward traffic-arteries, and should receive an additional duty pay at the rate of umpence day.
RH Mottram, Sixty-four, Ninety-four! (1925)

Ralph Hale Mottram was an English novelist known for his works based on his experiences during the First World War. And this quote from his 1925 novel Sixty-four, Ninety-four!, one of the books in his popular Spanish Farm trilogy, clearly uses the word umpence to mean a derisory amount of money.

Presumably, then, flumpence is not some new invention based on flummery, but is instead a mixture of flummery and this earlier First World War slang term, umpence. If that’s the case, then umpence puts us squarely in the territory of words like umpteen and umpty—both of which emerged in the early 1900s to mean ‘an indefinite amount’. (The ump– in both of these, incidentally, is from iddy-umpy, which was used as an onomatopoeic name for a Morse code message.)

So perhaps flumpence is based on umpence, with only a little influence from flummery thrown in later, along the lines of flummadiddle? Alas, without any more written evidence to go on, that’s about the best guess we have here.

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