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Crumby or Crummy?

Updated on December 4, 2016Grammar
  • Crummy and crumby are both valid words, but they mean different things.
  • Crumby means “full of crumbs.” 
  • Crummy means “lousy.”
  • In British English, crumby and crummy can mean the same thing.

In English, the letter b is sometimes silent. For example, the b is not pronounced in the adjective dumb. However, the noun dummy does not contain the letter b. Does the noun crumb follow a similar pattern to form its adjective? In other words, which is correct—crumby or crummy?

A crumb is a small fragment or particle of anything, but it often refers to bread or cake. A corresponding adjective would mean full of crumbs. Is that what crummy means? 

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Crumby and crummy examples

These quotes from literature can help you decide:

While Papa loaded our things, my brother and I ran back to the crummy. Mama had promised that this time we could sit in the high seats.

―Gary Hines, A Ride in the Crummy

As you can tell from the context, crummy in this sentence is a noun. Crummy is railroad slang for a train caboose. On freight trains, this car is often dirty with soot and grime because of where it attaches at the rear of the train. Let’s look at another source to see if there is a meaning closer to “full of crumbs.”

People are in one of two states in a relationship . . . The first is what I call positive sentiment override, where positive emotion overrides irritability . . . Their spouse will do something bad, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s just in a crummy mood.’ Or they can be in negative sentiment override, so that even a relatively neutral thing that a partner says gets perceived as negative.

―John Gottman, quoted in Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

In this quote, crummy is an adjective. It is not describing fragments of anything. Instead, crummy means “lousy” or “poor.” Dictionaries also define crummy as worthless, cheap, inadequate, dirty, and run-down. None of these negative descriptors pertain to crumbs, so should you conclude that crumby is never the word you want? Let’s look at an example from a journal called The Independent:

“The upmarket patisserie is very much a coming thing. The British have in recent decades put up with fairly crummy bread and bullet-like croissants. If you look around town there is an absolute explosion in quality baking concepts,” said Mr Harden.

Success! Crummy definitely refers to bread in this sentence. However, the speaker mentions “crummy bread” in the same breath as “bullet-like croissants,” so maybe he doesn’t mean it as a compliment. At any rate, this quote is from an article titled, “A culinary empire: The man who ate Britain.” British English speakers accept crummy as an alternative spelling of crumby. In American English, spelling crumby (as in bread crumbs) as crummy (as in lousy) is an error. Let’s check some American sources to see how crumby appears:

Years ago, I bought a box of frozen fish sticks in the hope they would become a seafood gateway for my small child. . . . It worked as planned. After she polished off the box, I was able to keep fish on the menu if I served it crumbed and fried. This was all well and good until my husband and I decided we wanted crunchy, crumby fish, too, preferably accompanied by its terrestrial soul mate, a golden tangle of French fries―or as they’re called in Britain, where they’ve mastered the art,

This example teaches us the American way of using and spelling crumby. The b doesn’t sound, so the pronunciation is exactly the same as crummy. But, to Americans, crummy is a different word with its own distinct meaning. In British English, both spellings appear can mean “lousy, wretched, and shabby” or “full of particles or fragments of something.” If you are describing a baguette, choose which form to use based on the location of your readers.

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