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What does "Humdrum" Mean?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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The word humdrum is an example of grammatical reduplication or repetitive rhyming, much like other informal words such as itsy-bitsy, okey-dokey, hoity-toity and namby-pamby. Humdrum actually means a boring, dull or monotonous state of being, with little hope of spontaneity or excitement. Living in a small rural city with very few sources of outside entertainment could easily be described as a humdrum existence. A routine factory job or a monotonous clerical position would also be considered humdrum. The expression is very similar to the informal word ho-hum, which also describes a boring or dull set of circumstances.

The "hum" in humdrum or ho-hum has long been used to suggest the exasperated humming sound inspired by boredom. Many people punctuate their feelings of boredom by vocalizing a long, drawn-out sigh or yawn. As with other reduplicative words, the "hum" is paired with a rhyming non sequitur, "drum." In essence, living a humdrum lifestyle would naturally lead to the stifled humming sounds of a yawn. Some sources suggest the use of humdrum to describe such a dull and ordinary situation can be traced back to at least the 16th century AD. Many popular reduplicative or rhyming slang words can also be traced to the informal speech patterns of commoners during that time period.

Occasionally the word can be found separated into two parts, hum drum, but this tends to mislead the reader into thinking there may be an actual drum associated with the etymology. An argument could be made that the rhyming word "drum" was not selected at random, however. Some people do drum their fingers or perform drumming riffs during times of extreme boredom, but there is precious little evidence to back up such speculation. There is also the idea of "drumming" up some excitement when confronted with hours of tedium or boredom. Again, there is no official evidence to support any other claim except for a satisfying rhyme with "hum." An actual drum used to combat the effects of tedium has yet to be discovered.

There are other phrases which also cover the same general mediocrity landscape as humdrum. A person could become "bored to tears" while performing a mundane or repetitious task, for example. A rural area with few social or recreational outlets could be described as a "one horse town." A monotonous job is often described as being "as exciting as watching paint dry." An less-than-interesting movie or book could be described as "ho-hum" or "dull as dishwater." A long, dull day may move "as slow as molasses." There are many ways to describe an exceedingly dull or uninspired existence, and humdrum is just one of them.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By Flywheel1 — On Dec 06, 2009

Shrink: "So what if it can be found in the dictionary?" Hint: The answer to your question can be found in my first sentence. To further explain, I had previously been given to understand that a request for a definition doesn't meet WiseGeek's criteria for assigning it to a writer. But maybe it does. Does that answer the so-what question?

By anon55184 — On Dec 05, 2009

"reduplication" Is that a word or a neoplasm?

By anon55168 — On Dec 05, 2009

Avoiding a humdrum life is a non-big city environment by having the possibility or reality fear of being mugged or burglarized would seem to be an extreme solution. --DWB

By anon55162 — On Dec 05, 2009

So what if it can be found in the dictionary? How many of us would've even thought about humdrum if our wise oracle hadn't mentioned it? The bottom line is that for fellow Geekers, there is no humdrum in our lives, and by featuring it, we have become more aware of how the other 97 percent lives. --Shrink

By Flywheel1 — On Dec 05, 2009

I am somewhat surprised that this question met the criteria for being answered and featured by WiseGeek. The definition can be found in any dictionary.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
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