The Grammarphobia Blog: Wanna look like a chumbolone?


Q: Have you come across the word “chumbolone”? It’s a new one for me. I found it on John Kass’s website. He was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and now writes a lot of angry screeds about the state of everything.

A: It was unknown to us, too.

The rare slang term “chumbolone” was first recorded about a decade and a half ago at the federal trial of Anthony Dale, a former Chicago police officer accused of leaking information to the mob.

Here’s the relevant passage: “ ‘I  don’t wanna look like a ‘chumbolone,’ an idiot,’ said Doyle, using street slang” (from a report by Jeff Coen in the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 24, 2007).

In commenting on the trial later that day, the Tribune columnist John Kass had this expanded version of Doyle’s testimony about a conversation in code with the mobster Frank Calabrese:

“ ‘I gave him lip service,’ Doyle said. ‘I didn’t know what he was talking about. I don’t wanna look like a chumbolone, an idiot, stupid.’ ” (It’s “pronounced chum-buh-LOAN,” according to Kass.)

Doyle’s remarks appeared in some newspapers and broadcasts around the country, but the usage didn’t catch on. It’s not in standard dictionaries or in the Oxford English Dictionary, the leading authority on English etymology.

It’s also not in the Dictionary of American Regional English or the updated online edition of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume reference compiled by the lexicographer Jonathon Green.

Although the term appears in a few smaller slang dictionaries that aren’t updated regularly, it’s rarely seen outside Chicago, and it’s not all that common in the city.

Most of the “chumbolone” examples we’ve found in searching digitized databases are from one writer, Kass, who has trademarked the term and uses it to sell merchandise on his website, such as this “No Chumbolone Zone Hat”:

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