The only hurdle to pronouncing Aunt Thelma’s “fum” simply a use of “fume” in this sense is, obviously, the usual pronunciation of “fume” as “fyoom.” (I’m assuming here that she pronounced “fum” as “fuhm” with no “y” sound.) But it’s not uncommon for a word to change its  sound in dialectical usage, and the usual use of “fume” in a negative sense may actually have contributed to a changed pronunciation for the positive “fum” sense. Perhaps it even came to be regarded as a separate word, i.e., “noxious fumes” versus “nice fum.” It’s also possible that the giant’s “Fee-fi-fo-fum” rhyme from “Jack the Giant Killer” influenced the change. In any case, I’d say that it’s highly likely that your hunch was correct, and your aunt was actually using a specialized sense of our modern word “fume.”

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3 comments on this post.
  1. Jim niro:

    What about the lyrics of the Christmas carol “Fum, fum,, fum”? “On December five and twenty fum, fum, fum.”

  2. walter louis:

    In my opinion any time you start to try and figure out the etymology of phonetic lyrics,you are -ahem- investigating
    [ please note the clever detective reference]
    wordless singing which i argue is primal in the evolution of language ie animal calling becomes singing becomes speaking.

  3. Alex:

    Walter, that theory is probably wrong as singing and speaking involve totally different parts of the brain (right and left hemispheres respectively). This is why if a left-brain stroke patient loses their language they use singing therapy to get them to try and “re-lateralise” to the right side.

    I’d be very careful about the Catalan folk song and the Jack and the Beanstalk example, both seem onomatopoeic for your average (g)rumbling noise.

    “Fum” was the Middle English way of saying “fume(s)”, borrowed from French (compare “parfum”). The vowel would have been a straight “oo”, no “y” sound in there.

    However I can’t find any mention of it in standard dialect. I would argue it’s a family thing, scent is commonly sold in French (“eau de parfum”, etc.) Maybe a child’s/playful coinage within the family from reading one of the bottles.

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