What is the meaning of "tump-tumping" in the extract below. I looked in many dictionaries but the expression is listed nowhere.

From the novel, Waterland:

Fairy-tale words; fairy-tale advice. […] So he would always set his eel traps at night. Not because eel traps cannot be set by day, but because the mystery of darkness appealed to him. And one night, in midsummer, in 1937, we went with him, Dick and I, to set traps near Stott’s Bridge. It was hot and windless. When the traps had been set we lay back on the river-bank. Dick was fourteen and I was ten. The pumps were tump-tumping, as they do, incessantly, so that you scarcely notice them, all over the Fens, and frogs were croaking in the ditches. Up above, the sky swarmed with stars which seemed to multiply as we looked at them. And as we lay, Dad said: ‘Do you know what the stars are? They are the silver dust of God’s blessing.

  • 8
    Sounds onomatopoetic to me.
    – bib
    Sep 2, 2016 at 10:48
  • I agree with @bib it's trying to paraphrase the sound of the pump.
    – Helmar
    Sep 2, 2016 at 11:11
  • 1
    He might have said "broing-broinging", if he thought the pumps made a "broing" sound. Or "pift-pifting" if the pumps made a "pift" sound. Since English spelling is, to at least a modest degree, phonetic, one can invent words to mimic specific sounds.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 2, 2016 at 12:04
  • 1
    It is worth noting that without drainage the Fens would be unusable marshes, and with drainage they are often below sea-level, so the drainage must be continuous pumping - which makes a sound
    – Henry
    Sep 2, 2016 at 12:05
  • 1
    I'll add that author James Thurber was quite fond of inventing onomatopoetic words. He uses the technique in several of his stories. And the onomatopoetic "glopita-glopita" plays a starring role in the movie How to Murder Your Wife (whose protagonist seems to be loosely based on Thurber).
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 2, 2016 at 12:23

1 Answer 1


I would interpret it as "making a tump-tump-tump noise". As others have suggested, it seems to be an onomatopoeic coinage.

Edit to explain further:

"Onomatopoeic" means that the word sounds like what it means. For example, "buzz" is the word for the sound made by a bee, and it sounds like a flying bee. So if you say "tump-tump-tump" you are making the sound that the writer was trying to describe. There is no other meaning to the word, and it is not part of standard English.

The phrase "tump-tumping" is used to suggest that the noise is continuous. If the writer had said "the pumps were going tump-tump-tump" it would have suggested that the noise was intermittent bursts of three "tumps" at a time. The "-ing" at the end is a verb suffix for an ongoing activity. For instance "he was running" means that at the past time in question the person had started running and had not yet stopped. Compare this with the second part of the sentence about the frogs croaking, which also describes an ongoing noise.

  • Thank you very much for your help. What's the meaning of the first "tump" in the sentence "The pumps were tump-tumping"? What's the meaning of the second "tump" in the sentence "The pumps were tump-tumping"? Thank you so much for your help. I really appreciate it. Sep 4, 2016 at 4:54
  • Added a bit more explanation to the reply. Sep 4, 2016 at 9:09
  • Thank you very much for your help. I really appreciate it. I looked up the word "tump" in the Oxford Dictionaries. oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/tump Is the pronunciation of the word "tump" like the noise of a working pump? The word "tump" doesn't have the meaning of the noise. The word "tump" means "hill" or "tree". Thank you so much for your help again. Sep 4, 2016 at 10:43
  • I am not very clear about the sentence "the noise was intermittent bursts of three "tumps" at a time". Sep 4, 2016 at 10:46
  • The author is simply using the word to represent a sound, not with its normal meaning. Chinese uses ideographs, so this must be a strange concept; in English the sp Sep 4, 2016 at 13:41

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