This Phrase Produces a 'Lump' in Your Throat

Rob Kyff on

A friend recently told me he didn't give a hoot whether a speech he was writing might offend some people. "If they don't like it, they can lump it!" he declared.

As soon as he used this phrase (which you don't hear very often these days), we both started speculating about its origin. It means, of course, that if you don't like something, you'll just have to stomach it, i.e., put up with it.

Is it, we wondered, related to "taking your lumps"? To coalescing your anger into a lump of resentment? To the bulky bully Lumpy Rutherford on "Leave It to Beaver"?

The verb "lump," possibly derived from the obsolete Dutch word "lompe" (piece, mass), has many meanings: to group (lump it in with the others); to form lumps (the oatmeal lumped up); to move clumsily (he lumped along).

But the "lump" in the phrase "like it or lump it" is a different word, possibly with Irish origins. It first arose during the 1500s with the meaning "to look sulky or disagreeable."

According to Gary Martin's authoritative website "The Phrase Finder," this "lump" first appeared in print in 1577 in "A Treatise Describing Ireland" by Dublin-born Richard Stanyhurst. Critics of his pro-British opinions, he wrote, "stand lumping and lowring, fretting and fuming."

This use of "lump" to mean "to look sulky" soon flourished, but it took another two centuries for the alliterative juxtaposition of "like" and "lump" to surface. An article in the August 1790 issue of a Philadelphia magazine refers to the phrase "As you like it, you may lump it," as a "proverb," which suggests it was a standard maxim at that time.


By the early 1800s, the "like/lump" combo was clearly present in Britain as well. An article titled "Rules for Punning," published in a London magazine in 1807, includes a scenario based on the double meanings of "lump" (to be sulky and to clump). When a woman complains that her tea has no sugar, her host passes her the sugar bowl and utters this groaner: "Well, ma'am, if you don't like it, you may lump it."

The first use of the precise imperative phrase "like it or lump it" in print came in "Specimens," a book of "morally uplifting" essays, rendered in contorted verse by the American writer Josiah Shippey in 1841. In one couplet, he writes of a pushy self-promoter who "imperiously forces, or like it or lump it, / Himself, honest fellow, to blow his own trumpet."

When it comes to Shippey's poetry, I think I'll lump it. Make that two lumps.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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