Lumping It

“An’ them that do not like it they can lump it”

Rudyard Kipling, “Cholera Camp” (1896)

It has been awhile since I last heard the expression “like it or lump it,” although the stoical philosophy expressed in the line will never go out of fashion. I will say more about that philosophy in a minute, but let me first say something about the expression.

“Lump it” seems to have first appeared in print near the end of the eighteenth century, and is generally supposed to refer to the lump-like shape of a sullen and defeated man. When a man is defeated and does not like it (as he very seldom does), he takes a seat, crosses his arms, hunches his back, stoops his shoulders, rests his chin against his chest, and bows his forehead towards his knees. He assumes what is sometimes called the “fetal position,” and the appearance of a man in this fetal position it is indeed lump-like, or lumpy.

It is the very opposite of the posture of a happy man who “likes it,” for a man enthused with delight will (if seated) spring to his feet, stand erect, throw his head back, and extend his arms. Where a sullen and defeated man withdraws into a lump of dough, a happy man who “likes it” assumes the radiant shape of a five-point star.

It is also possible that “lump it” has some deep connection to German noun Lump, which means a tatterdemalion vagabond, and hence an outcast or a wretch. It was from this root that Karl Marx coined the phrase Lumpenproletariat, by which he meant the working class that remained outside the revolutionary struggle. When I asked my German-speaking wife her translation of Lump, her first suggestion was loser in the deep sense of a “born loser,” or a man who has given up on life.

I am also inclined to see a connection between this sense of the word lump and the word “hunk,” for the squatting posture known as hunkering (hunkers being haunches) resembles the fetal lump, and it was long ago common to call a sour old curmudgeon a hunks. In a dictionary of criminal argot published in 1699, we find hunks defined as “a covetous creature, a miserable wretch,” and another book from the same era mentions “an old, penurious niggardly hunks” (1).

Beggars hunker, but so do tired men in the absence of chairs. This is very likely the origin of the modern sense of “hunker down” meaning to “tough it out” or “weather the storm.” This sense is quite new, perhaps no more than fifty years old, but its meaning is very similar to lumping it. Both denote endurance of something disagreeable, but “lumping it” carries the additional meaning of a bitter, brooding and resentful endurance.

You can hunker down with cheerful resignation to the inevitable, but to hunker down while brooding on the injustice of your having to hunker down is truly “lumping it.”

Stoicism is obviously the philosophy behind the expression “like it or lump it,” since it presents a choice of attitudes when faced by the inevitable. And the Stoics tell us we should choose to “like it.” In the words of Marcus Aurelius:

“For each, what Nature brings is best: and best too at the time when Nature brings it . . . . You die, and your service is finished. There is no other alternative. So be of good cheer” (2).

I took my epigram from Kipling’s poem “Cholera Camp,” an account of a British military outfit posted in India and losing ten men a day to the terrible disease. The remedies of the officers have had no effect, and neither have those of the chaplain, so the stoical sergeant who narrates the poem follows in the footsteps of Marcus Aurelius and says, where there is no other alternative, it is best to accept fate with good cheer.

“An’ them that do not like it they can lump it,
And them that cannot stand it they can jump it;
We’ve got to die somewhere—some way—some ’ow—
We might as well begin to do it now!”


(1) B. E., A New Dictionary of the Canting Crew of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, Etc.  (1699), p. 47. Thomas Brown, The Reasons of Mr. Joseph Hains (1690), p. 15.

(2) Meditations, xx, 20-21.

2 thoughts on “Lumping It

  1. Western Civilization has been lumping it for a long time in ways that correspond to every connotation of the word.

  2. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 06/02/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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