Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 23, 2018

Rummager Rummages Through Rummage Sale

I have the impression the phrase is less commonly used now than when I was a kid: “Rummage Sale.” I associate it with church basements and the Grange Hall in the town where I grew up. Far more common are signs on utility poles or stuck on street corners: yard sale, garage sale, estate sale and the like.

What say you? Is that merely an anecdotal perception resulting from the fact that I’ve left the small town environment? Is the term still prevalent where you are?

We encountered it just yesterday, along busy Pacific Coast Highway in suburban Los Angeles: a handmade sign on a utility pole, “Rummage Sale.”

Rummage Sale Brad Nixon 2835-2 680

Inevitably, I had to ask: What sort of word is rummage? Where did we get it? It sounds so archetypically English, doesn’t it? Like baggage, cabbage, carriage, cribbage, drayage, stoppage. One could think of several dozen other –age words with little effort.

Off to the dictionaries!

Rummage is one of those words that bedevil non-native speakers. Both substantive and predicate forms are spelled the same. Rummage can be an assortment of things, a substantive meaning “a search” or a predicate for “to search.” It’s an entirely valid English sentence to describe a search as a rummage to rummage through rummage. Anthony Burgess would’ve liked that one.

Like thousands of other words, we acquired it (perhaps after some rummaging) from French. By the time little Will Shakespeare was toddling around Stratford, the French word, arrumage, was in wide use to describe cargo stowed on ships (stowage!). There were substantive and predicate forms of French indicating both the goods themselves and the act of stowing them.

English speakers, those inveterate borrowers (despite Polonius’ admonition) and revisers of words, adopted it in the nautical trade, shortening it to “roomage,” which became our “rummage.” It’s likely there are speakers of the language who still pronounce it “roomage.” The technical term for such shortening is aphesis — usually involving the dropping of an unaccented initial vowel (droppage!).

Along the way — because the beauty of English is that there really is no single correct way to spell anything, when you get right down to it — we’ve been through romage, rommage, rumidg, rummidge, and other obtuse orthographies. What a great language.

Citations in the Oxford English Dictionary spanning the last 80 years of the 16th century  primarily concern nautical descriptions of cargo itself, assortments of cargo, loading and packing cargo, searching a ship’s contents (rummaging) and so forth. By now, of course, one can rummage through almost anywhere for anything, especially at rummage sales.

Normally, we English speakers do the heavy lifting, adopting and then adapting a word to work as noun, verb, adjective, adverb and so forth, but in this case, both the noun, arrumage and verb, arrumager already existed in French, as well as similar words in Spanish and Portuguese. They’re still so common in those languages that you won’t need unabridged dictionaries to find their modern forms: French arrimage, arrimer and Spanish arrumajer, arrumar. Portuguese is identical or similar to Spanish, but I lack a dictionary to make certain.

In that mystifying sort of serendipity that comes without warning, an hour after spotting the rummage sale sign and starting to think about the word, I encountered it in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, used as a substantive, when his narrator describes the odds and ends of possessions in his house: “… the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages.”

So infuriatingly vague is English that it’s impossible to say whether Mr. DeLillo intended the word in its sense as a collective term for an assortment of things, or things once searched-out and collected — rummaged — from somewhere else. My heart goes out to those who have to learn this language later in life, and keep expecting it to make sense, the way their native ones do.

That other writer I mentioned, the kid from Stratford? He ended up being moderately successful. He did find occasion to use “romage” — exactly once: Hamlet, Act I, sc. i. Horatio is delivering background explication of the conflict between Hamlet’s father and Fortinbras of Norway, in which Fortinbras was killed. Now his son, young Fortinbras, is collecting an army threatening Denmark’s border. Typical of Shakespeare, he uses rummage in an extremely unusual sense of the word:

… and this, I take it, 
Is the main motive of our preparations, 
The source of this our watch, and the chief head 
Of this post-haste and romage in the land.

In other words, there’s a lot of commotion and bustle out there, one additional substantive meaning for rummage. That guy.

So much for rummaging through the dictionary. Never know what rummage you’ll turn up.

Note: Little Miss Traveller, host of the far-ranging, always-interesting and -informative blog, “Love Travelling,” writes from England to observe that the typical descriptor of similar sales there is “jumble sale.” I’ve heard the term, but never encountered it in the U.S. “Jumble” appears in English some time in the 1600s, with no apparent etymological roots. OED suggests it’s an onomatopoetic word similar to bumble, rumble, grumble, et al. “Jumble sale” seems immediately and perfectly descriptive of the event, every bit as colorful as “rummage sale.” Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Quotation from White Noise © Don DeLillo, Penguin Books, Viking Critical Library edition, New York, 1998; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, New York, 1973; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2000; Cassell’s French Dictionary, MacMillan Publishing, New York, 1982; Bantam Diccionario Inglés-Español/Español-Inglés, Bantam Books, New York, 1989. A handy online Shakespeare concordance, where I found the citation from OED is


  1. Interesting, we used to call these sales in church halls, Jumble Sales but I haven’t heard this expression for a long time either. Over here they are now advertised as ‘nearly new’ or second hand’ but I imagine sell the same sort of stuff as a rummage or jumble sale Brad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That term’s quite familiar, although I can’t possibly know it any way but through books or films or TV, because I have the impression it’s uniquely British/English. Trying like heck (or, perhaps, “like the dickens” is more apropos) to think of where I’ve heard/read it.
      An episode of “Keeping Up Appearances?” Was there a jumble sale at the charity fete that begins Greene’s “Ministry of Fear?” Hard to say.
      I’d be surprised if it’s used at all in the U.S., but one never knows what words might’ve survived in some of the earlier colonial areas. The American Heritage dictionary doesn’t list it.
      But, yes, I assume one finds about the same sorts of things, whether one’s jumbling or rummaging. Thanks so much.


  2. Very interesting indeed. The description “rummage sale” still appears in my area of the world…but then again this is fly over country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nonsense. To miss driving around Indiana is … well, there’s not much of the world that’s better to fly over than walk around on. Not really.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know–but that seems to be the standard answer of many supposedly leaving us unexposed to “real” life.


      • So much for real life from people who think sitting in metal tubes and staying in hotels is “real.” Plus, all those places have TV … more reality!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Our church hosts a very large rummage sale each fall raising thousands of dollars. One can even purchase lunch at the rummage sale; usually a soup or a sandwich or a casserole and a piece of homemade pie! As far as I can tell, food is all new, no rummage food.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You answered my burning question about the food! Thank goodness. No one wants rummage soup.


  4. What surprises me most are the nautical connections. In thirty years of being around the water, boats, ships, and shipyards, I’ve never heard the term ‘roomage’ used, or anything like it. I don’t remember coming across it in my reading, either. It may be that it endures as a merchant marine or international shipping term; both cartage and drayage still are used, and are familiar.

    I grew up with ‘rummage sales’ in Iowa, but here in Texas, there are garage sales (even in neighborhoods where there are no garages) and yard sales. Yard sales seem to be more common in rural areas, but communal sales involving entire neighborhoods always are garage sales — even if they’re held in yards. If there’s logic to any of this, I can’t find it.

    My English friends have a term for what seems to be a new custom: the boot sale. Items for sale are placed in the boot of the car, and then all of the cars are parked in a common area, allowing people to rummage through them at will.

    You’ve reminded me of a favorite piece from some years ago that may deserve editing and re-posting, in which I imagine the marketplace of ideas as an intellectual garage sale.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Extremely interesting. I have a brother on the faculty at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. I’ll have him check.
      Fascinating that you came up with “boot sale.” Earlier today, a former colleague in Australia commented on the Facebook feed of my post, describing people loading things in their cars and gathering at vacant lots: the very same boot sales. He maintains that most of the people who use that term are “Pommies,” which, of course, is Australian for “English friends,” without so much friendliness in it.
      And, yes, I’ll be a regular at any Task at Hand garage sale!


  5. Apparently, I live in a cave. I have heard the term “rummage sale;” but I have never been to one or seen one advertised. At least my Lascaux home has drawings. Maybe I can sell some. At a garage sale. Home association permit required. Bon chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cave sale!


      • Have you actually hosted a rummage or garage sale, or had one in your neighborhood?

        Our homeowners association schedules one every few years for our neighborhood. Those owners who want to participate leave their garages open all day and display their various treasures for sale.

        What I have found very surprising about these sales is the huge throngs of out of towners that descend upon our sleepy neighborhood to shop. I mean, I don’t live on Rodeo Drive, and we aren’t offering Boulle consoles or Second Empire clocks for a few centimes. I really don’t get it.

        Anyway, I’ve never opted to participate. I’d rather keep my dusty Renoirs in the attic than sell them for a euro, only to discover later the hideous error I had made. Don’t you agree?


      • I have more experience at garage sales, yard sales, flea markets and the like than I can relate here. That doesn’t begin to touch my experiences at the rummage sale in the basement of the grange hall in my home town and some uncountable number of auctions held on the frozen premises of farms and properties in the distant Midwest. Don’t get me started.


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