As used in American English, gumption is an old-timey, folksy word that conjures up a picture of a plainspoken person with a lot of common sense, spunk, and spirit. People with gumption—often seemingly unsophisticated characters who happen to be wiser and more clearheaded than the rest of us—are staples of folklore the world over.
This classic role was played to great effect by the American humorist Will Rogers (“Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as good as Prohibition did, in five years we will have the smartest people on earth.”).
A more recent example of gumption that resonated strongly in American popular culture was Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, the central character of the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. Andy’s unassuming, folksy persona gave cover to a courageous and resourceful master of human nature who quietly and effectively functioned as the guardian of his eccentric community. Some of Sheriff Taylor’s best work was guarding the self-esteem of the anti-Andy, his incompetent, timid, and superbly grandiose deputy, Barney Fife.
I think Sheriff Taylor would agree with Robert Pirsig’s definition of gumption in his 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “psychic gasoline,” fuel for getting work done. “If you are going to repair a motorcycle,” he wrote, “an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool.”[i] But the motorcycle he is writing about is, as he says, “primarily a mental phenomenon.” And, as he also makes clear from the very beginning, “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.’”[ii]
Notes:[i] “If you are going to repair a motorcycle…” Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1974), 303. [ii] “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself.”: Ibid. 325