But then my get-up-and-go got up and went.
Dear Word Detective: When I was growing up in Yorkshire, in the 1940s, “gumption” was commonly understood to mean “common sense,” or “street smarts.” I have since moved to Canada, where “gumption” seems to be a synonym for “courage” or “nerve.” I would be interested to see how this word could have acquired two such different meanings among people of the same basic heritage. — Brian Whitehead.
Well, there you go. You just happened to have lived through a time when the meaning of a common word changed substantially. It happens all the time, actually, although the last two centuries, and indeed the past few years, have seen some especially breathtaking linguistic transformations. When I was a boy, for instance, a “mortgage” was a rather boring long-term loan you wheedled from your local bank in order to buy a house. A “mortgage” these days, however, appears to be a very expensive ticket in a high-stakes national lottery run by people who make the Mafia look like Boy Scouts. Google “Countrywide” if that seems an overstatement.
The difference in the meaning of “gumption” between Yorkshire in the 1940s and Canada today is more a result of time passing than of your move to a new continent. The word “gumption” itself first appeared in English dialects in the early 18th century, imported from Scots, where it meant “common sense” or “shrewdness.” The roots of “gumption” are uncertain, but it may well be connected to the Middle English “gome,” (in Scots, “gaum”) meaning “attention or notice,” perhaps based on the Old Norse “gaumr.”
In English, “gumption” thrived with the meaning you knew as a lad, “common sense” or “smarts” (“Tis small presumption To say they’re but unlearned clerks, And want the gumption,” 1719). By the early 19th century, however, “gumption” had acquired the added sense of “drive, initiative” (“If they … show pluck and gumption they … get promoted,” 1889). The addition of “initiative” to the meaning “common sense” wasn’t much of a leap, as the two personal characteristics often travel together. And it was probably no accident that “gumption” was first used to describe someone who had both good sense and the drive to succeed in the 19th century, a period of the rapid expansion of mercantile capitalism. It was a period of unprecedented class mobility, when a lowly clerk with gumption could, with a bit of luck, become successful in business.
“Gumption” gradually lost the meaning of “street smarts” in the course of the 19th century (although that usage is still heard in certain parts of England), and now is used to mean simply “initiative” or “ambition.” Interestingly, however, another relative of that Middle English root “gome” (meaning “smarts” or “understanding”) is alive and well, albeit in a negative sense. To be “gormless” is to be clueless, empty-headed and hopelessly dense.