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OED says the origin of both 'tump' (transitive verb, US, to "drag or carry by means of a tump-line", OED) and 'tump-line' (noun, "local U.S.", op. cit.) is "obscure". 'Tump-line' means

a line or strap passing across the forehead and attached to a pack on the back thus aiding the burden bearer.

— From a later note defining a word in a record dated 4th Sept. 1759, in Transactions and collections of the American Antiquarian Society, v. 11, "Manuscript Records of the French and Indian War", 1909, p. 230 (see note at bottom of page).

The earliest attestations given in OED are 1855 for the verb and 1860 for the noun, but as the example from the American Antiquarian Society and examples from other secondary sources show, the words were in use with this sense at least a hundred years earlier (1775, 1781).

John Russell Bartlett's 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms (the 1860 edition is cited in OED to attest both the verb and the noun) says the origin of 'to tump' is probably "an Indian word":

TO TUMP. Probably an Indian word. It means to draw a deer or other animal home through the woods, after he has been killed. Ex. 'We tumped the deer to our cabin.' Used in Maine.
TUMPLINE. A strap placed across the forehead to assist a man in carrying a pack on his back. Used in Maine, where the custom was borrowed from the Indians.

What was the now obscure linguistic origin of 'to tump' and so also 'tumpline'?

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Source: Wikipedia Commons

The origin of tump in tumpline likely goes back to a word in a variety of Algonquian languages meaning ‘head’. The reconstructed proto-Algonquian root *wetempe originally had a nasal consonant that later dropped out:

Abenaki: wetep, metep (“its head”)
Cheyenne: hestàhpe, hehtáhpe (“brain”)
Cree: wihtihp / ᐃᐧᐦᑎᐦᑊ (iyhtihp, “brain”)
Fox: nîn-êtepi (“my brain”)
Miami: antepi (“his brain”) (from *-ntep-)
Ojibwe: niin-indib (“my brain”)

This method was not limited to tribes speaking these languages but is commonly found among native peoples across the Americas. Behind the English word, then, is an encounter between a Native American and a European who saw the physical advantages of a tumpline and needed a name for it, likely in the course of the 17th c.

Many if not most of the etymological dates in the OED come from a time before the widescale digitalization of earlier literature when attestations were recorded on notecards and filed. Earlier dates are routinely found by contributors to this website.

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  • Thanks, that's useful. The 'mattump, metump' derivation seems plausible, if those were attested. Your claim is partly that OED did not (prior to 1915) have resources to leverage for Abenaki language derivations? Your editorializing about OED "etymological dates" is a bit puzzling. – JEL Apr 27 '19 at 7:25
  • That the dates of first attestation in the OED are pushed back on this website, whose contributors have access to digital resources, is not opinion but fact. It's been my experience that that is especially true for words that originated in American English. The reconstructed root is documented in the wiktionary article. – KarlG Apr 27 '19 at 8:11
  • I presume the OED website has a means of contacting them with your own research. Why don't you send your work to them? I'm not a subscriber to the OED, but when I find earlier attestations for words or idioms, I email the documentation to etymonline. – KarlG Apr 27 '19 at 8:23
  • It turns out OED does have an entry from 2001 (3rd ed., attested a1753(1906) and 1754(1824)) for 'metump' as compared to 'tump' (1st ed., 1915) including the form 'mattump': "Etymology: < Southern New England Algonquian; the precise form of the etymon is unknown." So, the origin of 'tump' is obscure even in light of the info about 'metump' origin. Antedating is of little interest to me per se, that is, unless it illuminates or illustrates something more substantial about the history of the word. Parallel development of 'tump' may have been influenced by tump lines used in tree planting. – JEL Apr 27 '19 at 21:27
  • And if it originates at S. New England Algonkian and the root extends, then that explains why it's spread so well. Cree and Ojibwe and other Algonkian languages were spoken all the way across the continent, even by non-Algonkian groups. – John Lawler Apr 27 '19 at 22:10

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