My friend the idiot?
Dear Word Detective: I just saw “A Girl, a Guy and a Gob” (1941), starring George Murphy, Lucille Ball, and Edmond O’Brien. In it, a guy gets into a cab and the driver says, “Where to, chum?” The guy looks insulted and says, “Why’d you call me a chum?” The driver says, “Any guy that would turn down a dance with a dame like that is a chum.” I used to think a “chum” was a buddy or a pal, but now I think it meant a “chump” back then, an idiot. What do you think? — John Watson.
That’s an interesting question. I spent quite a while poking around online, hoping to find the script or even a closed-caption file from the film, but no dice. Yet more evidence that the internet is only really good at telling you things you already know. I did find a review of the film from the New York Times from when the film opened back in 1941. Their reviewer called it “a ribticklish little comedy,” noting that “It is full of irrevelant [sic] notions. Practically anything can happen — and does.” I suspect that typo was introduced when the Times digitized its archives, but I’m surprised that the cornball cliche “anything can happen — and does” passed muster at the copy desk in 1941. Come to think of it, the whole review reads like it was written by a studio hack. It was, incidentally, the first film produced by Harold Lloyd in which he himself did not appear, but it does feature Doodles Weaver, Sigourney’s grandpa and a noted actor and comedian in his own right.
The question raised by your question, and the reason I was looking for a text version of that scene, is whether the cab driver actually said “chum” in that exchange. Might he have said, “Where to, chump?” That would explain the other guy’s reaction; he would have been expecting “Where to, chum?” (a plausible greeting from cabbies at the time) and thus be surprised when he realized that he’d actually been addressed as “chump.” Since I haven’t seen the film, I can’t judge the quality of the soundtrack, but it wouldn’t surprise me if “chum” and “chump” were almost indistinguishable after seventy years.
However, assuming that the driver did say, “Any guy that would turn down a dance with a dame like that is a chum,” I’m at a loss to explain it. I can’t find any evidence that “chum” was used as a synonym for “idiot” at any point in its history.
“Chum” first appeared in the late 17th century (“To my Chum Mr. Hody of Wadham Colledge,” 1684) with the meaning of “one who shares a room or rooms,” especially at college, and, by extension, a close friend and/or constant companion. The origin of “chum” in this sense is, strictly speaking, uncertain. But the traditional assumption has been that it originated as a clipped form (popular in the 17th century) of “chamber-mate,” “chamber-fellow” or the like. In favor of this theory is the fact that the first uses of the word in print clearly referred to a person sharing rooms at college, as opposed to the more general “pal” sense of the term. There is, incidentally, another “chum” in English, meaning “entrails, etc., of fish used as bait to attract other fish,” but that word is clearly unrelated to this “chum.”
“Chump,” meaning “an idiot, a blockhead” or “a sucker, a loser,” actually appeared in English at roughly the same time as “chum,” but has never been anything but a dismissive insult. The initial meaning of “chump” when it first appeared in print in 1680 was “a lump of wood chopped or sawed off a bigger piece,” i.e., an end-piece or trimming. The source of “chump” is, alas, uncertain, but one possible source is an Old Norse word “kumba,” meaning “block of wood,” perhaps influenced in English by the form of such words as “lump” and “stump.” In the 19th century, “chump” was used to mean the blunt end of anything (“As if they had been unskilfully cut off the chump-end of something,” Great Expectations, Dickens, 1861), as well as being slang for the human head (“Think how unpleasant it is to have your chump lopped off,” V. Nabokov, 1960). But by the late 1800s, “chump” was also being used in its modern sense of “a person as stupid as a chump of wood” (“Such a long-winded old chump at telling a story,” 1883).
So I haven’t been able to find any historical sense of “chum” to mean anything close to “chump.” I’ll keep an eye out for the movie, and if I find it I promise to listen very, very closely to that scene. But for the time being I think we’ll have to assume that it’s that ancient soundtrack that transformed “chump” into something that sounds like “chum.”