Monday, November 18, 2013

Bungee Binge

One of the customers wonders about the word bungee, as in bungee cords, the cloth-covered rubber cords that are used for bungee jumping. One end of these “elastic ropes” is attached to a high jumping-off point and the other end to the ankles of a thrill-seeking idiot who then jumps, hoping the elasticity of the cord will enable the jumper to bounce up and down without touching the ground.

Nobody wants to say for sure where the word comes from.  The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of bungee by Oliver Goldsmith in 1760, but that refers to a kind of silk cloth and probably was a confusion with the word pongee. 

Bungie is a nineteenth-century West Country English dialect word meaning “short, thick, and squat,” a meaning that gave rise to bungey, meaning a “milk cart.” In the nineteenth century bungie also meant a “rubber eraser.” According to the late word-pundit William Safire, this usage stems from india-bungey, an Anglo-Indian slang term for “india rubber.”

Another claim to the word’s origin is in the Anglo-Indian lexicon known as Hobson Jobson, in which the word bangy, rooted in the Sanskrit vihangama, is defined as "a shoulder-yoke for carrying loads, the yoke or bangy resting on the shoulder, while the load is apportioned at either end in two equal weights, and generally hung by cords."

The earliest known use of bungee as an elastic rope is in 1930. The OED cites its usage in 1938 as a cord used to launch gliders. The Online Etymological Dictionary surmises that it might be a portmanteau word composed of “bouncy” and “spongy.”

The first known modern bungee-jumping was on April Fool’s Day in 1979, when members of the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club rigged themselves with elastic strands extracted from woven nylon and jumped from the 245-foot-high Clifton Bridge in Bristol, England.  “Quite pleasurable, really,” remarked one member after the jump.

Legend has it that similar jumps—using jungle vines instead of elastic cords—have been a coming-of-age ritual on some South Pacific islands for centuries.

A. J. Hackett, who opened the world’s first commercial bungee jumping establishment in New Zealand, claims bungee (or bungy) is Kiwi slang for “elastic strap.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou loves to bungee-jump, but so far he’s only managed to fall from the height of a barstool to the floor (and he always forgets to wear a cord). 

            A man who was feeling quite grungy 
            Decided to jump with a bungee. 
            But he measured it wrong, 
            And the cord was too long— 
            And now he’s not grungy, he’s spongy. 



  1. In Sweden back in the 1920's the cord was named after the guy that first rigged one up as a multi stranded elastic cord. His name was Bjorn Gene,...hence a Bjorn Gene cord,...corrupted into what it sounds like today,...Bungee. This was told to me fifty years ago by an old WWI pilot.

  2. Anonymous - that sounds as convincing as some of the other explanations!

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