Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 25 September 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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In the glorious new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which came out on Thursday, the article on Colin Welch says that the Daily Telegraph in his day was for the lumpenbourgeoisie.

At first I thought that was merely an ignorant error. The word Lumpen in German means ‘a rag’. Lump means ‘ragamuffin’. Karl Marx is the originator of the term Lumpenproletariat, which he applied to the ‘lowest and most degraded section of the proletariat; the “down and outs” who make no contribution to the workers’ cause’, as the Oxford English Dictionary neatly puts it. Marx did not share Mother Teresa’s regard for the poorest of the poor.

Raggedness in early 20th-century English eyes also constituted a characteristic of artistic and intellectual bohemia. ‘The lumpen-proletarian fringe,’ wrote Orwell in Inside the Whale (1940), was ‘composed partly of genuine artists and partly of genuine scoundrels.’ Four years later Arthur Koestler saw the intelligentsia becoming ‘the Lumpen-Bourgeoisie in its decay’.

Koestler was a German speaker, but by his time lumpen had become a word for ‘boorish, stupid, unenlightened’. After the second world war, it became increasingly unclear what connotations lumpen carried in any particular example of its usage. The lumpen-avant-garde or lumpen-aesthetics seems to suggest stupidity. In our own time I can often make best sense of its use by some writers by the supposition that they think lumpen means ‘lumpy’, or ‘lumpish’.

I think the nearest to the ODNB usage is found in a piece in the Times Literary Supplement of 6 October 1972 which said that ‘the lumpenbourgeoisie, behind a variety of leaders, is sick of dissent — student demonstrations, pornography, anti-apartheid, drug-taking, immigration, drugs and crime’. Apart from the pornography, these were the things that Philip Larkin, for example, was inveighing against at the time.

The funny thing is that quite independently of Marx, lump, especially as in ‘lump of clay’, has for centuries been used in English to refer to the earthy side of human nature, the clay vessels in which we subsist. The original idea no doubt came from Genesis, and Shakespeare in Hamlet has Caesar’s dead clay used to keep out the draught. Bishop Beveridge in a sermon in 1729 looked forward to the day when, ‘being freed from these lumps of clay we shall be made like to the glorious angels’.

In that day we shall not need to read the newspapers. Until then I shall keep on taking in the Telegraph, or my husband will demand to know the reason why.