To “B” or Not to “B”

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English words ending in the spelling -mb occasionally give English learners difficulty. The error arises in trying to pronounce the final b.

Some of these words derive from originals that included the b sound and spelling.

Some, however, had the unnecessary, (sometimes called the “parasitic”), -b added after the words were in common use.

Here are some -mb words that come from roots that included the b as part of the spelling.

bomb [bŏm]- noun meaning an explosive device. From Italian bomba, possibly from Latin bombus, “a buzzing or booming sound” and Greek bombos “deep and hollow sound.”

climb [klīm] – verb meaning “to ascend.” He climbed the stairs. He climbed the cliff face. As a noun it means “an ascent.” It was an arduous climb. Climb is from the Old English verb climban.

comb [kōm] – noun (OE camb) meaning “a toothed implement.” As a verb it means to perform the act of running a comb through hair. It is also used figuratively to mean “examine with care.” She combed (or combed through) the files, looking for evidence.

dumb [dŭm] – (OE thumb; ON dumbr) meaning “mute.” The modern sense of “stupid” was influenced by German dumm, “stupid.”

jamb [jăm] – (Old French jambe, “side post of a door”) Ultimately from words meaning “leg,” a jamb is an upright piece of wood or other material that forms the side of a door, window, or other opening.

lamb [lăm] – This word for a baby sheep retains its OE spelling.

plumb [(plŭm)] The noun refers to a heavy object (usually a lead weight) tied to a string, used by builders to establish a vertical line. Plumb comes into English by way of Old French from the Latin word for lead [lĕd]:plumbum. (In case you ever wondered about the abbreviation for lead on the Periodic Table, now you know.) As a verb plumb can mean to make a wall straight, or determine the depth of something. It is used figuratively in the sense of examining something closely. Ex. He plumbed the depths of his soul.

tomb [tūm or toom] – a noun meaning a place of burial. The verb is “to entomb.” It came into English from French. At first the b was pronounced, but fell silent at some time in the 14th century.

womb [wūm or woom] – the uterus. From OE wamb or womb meaning “belly” or “uterus.”

The following words had the -b added to them after they had been in use without it.

crumb [krŭm] a small piece of something; from OE cruma. The verb crumble derives from OE gecrymman “to break into crumbs.” The -b may have got into the act by analogy with the French word humble.

limb [lĭm] – OE lim could mean the branch of a tree or a body member. The final -b began to appear on the word in the late 1500s.

numb [nŭm] – The adjective numb, meaning “devoid of feeling,” comes from the OE verb niman, “to take.” In 1440 the word existed as nome, “taken, seized.” A person who had been “taken” with shock or cold couldn’t feel normally. The unnecessary -b attached itself to the word during the 17th century, giving us numb.

thumb [thŭm] This word for the short fat digit that enables us to pick up things comes from OE thuma. The -b got attached to the word about 1290.


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8 thoughts on “To “B” or Not to “B””

  1. Denis,
    The notation [klīm] used above represents the same sound as [klaim]. I have used the long vowel mark over the letter i. The Oxford Dictionary uses “ai” to represent the long i sound.

  2. Dear Sir.

    Have there been any attempts to simplify these words so they cause less confusion to non -english speakers. Why not drop the m at the end of these words so lamb becomes lam….now, I can see a problem ; there is a word lam, jam from jamb…

    I know the ist of such words were not meant to be exhaustive so I’ll go out on a limb and say how dumb not to include ……..

  3. Richard,
    You have an interesting view of English. Are you a native speaker?

    Even if English speakers recognized some authority with the power to alter spellings by mandate, I don’t see why such a thing would be done to “cause less confusion to non -english speakers.”

    Do German or French authorities worry about altering their languages for the benefit of non-native speakers?

    A language, like Everest, is there–to be cherished by its native speakers and to be learned with varying degrees of difficulty by those not born to it.

    Please continue your list. I’d like to add any other -mb words you can think of to mine.

  4. A reader named Will has reminded me of another, less common -mb word: succumb.

    The sense of “to give in, to sink under pressure” is first recorded in 1604. One succumbs to an illness or to a wound. The past form is succumbed.

  5. From the listing for crumb:
    “The -b may have got into the act . . ”

    Should this not be:
    “The -b may have GOTTEN into the act . . .” ?

    We are losing our participles.

  6. It’s interesting that the pronunciations for some longer words built off of these words *do* have the “b” sound, as in limber, crumble, or bombastic.

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