Friday, January 20, 2012

`Ciphering Out How the Grass Grew'

While writing about the usefulness of pocket knives, Gene Logsdon at The Contrary Farmer recalls a favorite pastime:

“As boys, we used our knives mainly to play a game we called `mumblety-peg.’ (I have a hard time believing this, but Merriam-Webster says the first known use of that word, mumblety-peg, was in 1647, and that it first referred to what the loser in the game had to do— pull a peg out of the ground with his or her teeth.)”

In Cleveland we knew the game as “mumbley-peg,” one of thirty-seven variant spellings recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary. Rules vary. We played by balancing the point on the tip of the index finger and flipping the knife so it stuck in the ground, sometimes aiming at a circle scratched in the dirt. Skill was required but the real attraction was the potential for injury to self and others. The romantic allure of knives is strong among boys, and owning one confers a heady sense of adultness. I keep a Swiss Army knife in the glove compartment.

The OED entry is a veritable encyclopedia of cutlery folklore. The word derives from an archaic usage of “mumble,” “to bite or chew with toothless gums,” confirming the derivation Logsdon cites. The Dictionary specifies that the loser is “required to draw out of the ground with the teeth a peg which has been driven in with a certain number of blows with the handle of the knife.” As boys, we bypassed etymology and imposed no such penalty, though Iona and Peter Opie describe it in Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969):

“In former times it was the victor’s privilege to drive a peg into the ground with as many blows of his knife-handle as the loser required additional throws to complete the game; and the vanquished, by way of penance, had to pull the peg out of the ground with his teeth.”

Children live by ritual and an Old Testament sense of justice. The detail of matching pounds to the peg to the number of fumbles sounds right, though we never played it that way. It reminds me of a passage in Thoreau’s journal from late summer 1850 that may refer indirectly to mumblety-peg:

“There was a cross-eyed fellow used to help me survey,--he was my stake-driver,--and all he said was, at every stake he drove, `There, I should n’t like to undertake to pull that up with my teeth.’”

Characteristically, Thoreau follows up with this: “It sticks in my crop. That’s a good phrase. Many things stick there.”

The OED gives ten citations for “mumblety-peg” dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, including one from “The Late Benjamin Franklin,” a humorous piece Mark Twain published in 1870 in The Galaxy magazine: “If anybody caught him playing ‘mumble-peg’ by himself, after the age of sixty, he would immediately appear to be ciphering out how the grass grew.”

Sinclair Lewis used it in Main Street (1920): “While you're playing mumblety-peg with Mrs. Lym Cass, Pete and me will be rambling across Dakota.”

On my own I discovered that Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942), whose customary subject was diaphanous ladies, painted “Mumblety Peg” in 1885. Eleven years later, Twain published Tom Sawyer, Detective, in which he mentions the game in the first paragraph:

“The frost was working out of the ground, and out of the air, too, and it was getting closer and closer onto barefoot time every day; and next it would be marble time, and next mumbletypeg, and next tops and hoops, and next kites, and then right away it would be summer and going in a-swimming.”

I enjoy seeing the continuity of the game across centuries, appealing as it does to primal boyish instincts. Some scholars see a game of mumblety-peg between two boys in the lower right corner of Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games (1560). The guy on the left clearly holds a knife pirate-style between his teeth, and the one on the right seems to be protesting. Either they’re playing the game or about to rumble. The way we played as kids, it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference.

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