I was a camper at Camp Stephens every year from the beginning of eligibility at age 9 in 1964 until I aged out in the ’70s. I think I was an Intermediate in 1966 or 1967 when I heard the definition of “mung” from Jeff C. I think he was one of the canoe program trippers at the time and he and some other miscellaneous camp staff were in one of the old white cabins on the cabin line just before Neoniskos. I was in that cabin a lot because as a camper, I gave massages/back rubs to the various canoe staff on many afternoons, partly as a means of escaping the mandatory siesta time in the cabin. Jeff’s description of mung was quite gross and had nothing to do with the bean. The polite version is that mung was some sort of biological material that had gone far more than rancid, and graphic descriptions involved decomposition, ooze and an obnoxious array of really awful odours. A slightly nastier version was called mungus, and was embellished with mold or fungus. Several jokes and examples were provided involving dead animals and some squished food item on the bottom of a pack at the end of a canoe trip.
That year, I was in a cabin with Jim H, Hume M, and 5 other campers (who’s names escape me). Hume was, shall we say, not quite organized with his laundry, right from day one of camp. A few days into camp, he had already accumulated a small pile of laundry that showed up on the cabin floor, and for some reason, was not picked up or processed appropriately like everybody else’s. We had a bit of wet weather and Hume did not like to be wet. He repeatedly changed into dry clothes and left the wet ones to somehow get dry in that pile on the floor. I remember Jim and I needled him a bit after a couple of days since a bit of mildew had started to set in and the aromas were not friendly. We referred to the pile as “Hume’s mung” or “Hume’s pile O mungus” after noting that it continued to grow and continued to be really gross. Somehow, adding fresh (but wet) clothes to the top of the pile seemed to subdue the odours a bit and Hume managed to get away without picking up the mess. Methinks there was some kind of favoritism from the counselor. Right about the time the pile of laundry would have reached critical mass and been cleaned up, our cabin went out on trail for a few days. The pile remained in the cabin, waiting for our return. … which we eventually did, about 6 days later.
It was awful! Jim and I harangued Hume immediately, referring (naturally) to Hume’s mungus by name. The entire cabin joined in. Hume’s great pile O’ mungus came to life and got a lot of attention very quickly. Neighbouring cabins heard about it and everybody developed stories, which changed, expanded and morphed as the last week of camp went on. A lot of the tales involved the pile getting more and more toxic; some stories involved the pile getting bigger and bigger and eventually overtaking the island, the lake, and the planet. Some suggested using it as a weapon of war. Never mind the Geneva convention. Somewhere along the line, the pronunciation of mungus changed from soft “G” (rhymes with “brung us”) to hard “G” (rhymes with “brung Gus”). The phrase “hume mungus” became the word “humongous”, used as a synonym for something large, threatening and foreboding, along the lines of Godzilla’s arrival on the next supply boat from Kenora. Camp was a place where campfire stories involved chainsaws, serial murderers and death in the woods. Hume’s mungus fit right in, and the stories of the hermit miner and “the green hand” were left in the dust. Counselors and camp leaders used the word as part of the nightly camp fire entertainment. We had a lot of fun with this and a few days later, went home for the summer. I don’t recall what happened to the laundry.
The next year upon return to camp, Jim and I ended up in the same cabin again (I don’t think Hume was there at the same time). We were surprised to hear “humongous” as a term used in frequent conversation amongst fellow campers and counselors. The campfire style stories continued, with Hume’s laundry a long forgotten feature of the tales. Nobody seemed to know the origin of the magic word, but everyone enjoyed using it, and propagated it as a feature of every camp tale.
Sometime that fall or winter, I was at home listening to a Winnipeg radio station and heard the lady being interviewed say that something was “humongous”. I smiled quietly to myself, thinking that perhaps she knew someone that I knew from camp.
Then I heard it on a national show on CBC television. I heard it several times over the next year or two in other places from people disconnected from camp. Hmm, my acquaintances from camp travel a bit.
A couple of years later, I was watching Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and he said that something was “humongous” in one of his punchlines in his opening monologue. I thought “Oh. My. We’ve created a monster.” The word was out, so to speak. At that point, I realized how far this thing had gone.
Over the years, I have heard ‘humongous’ used many times by many people. I live in the USA now, a long way from camp. For a few years, every time someone said “humongous” around me, I used to say something along the line of “Hey, I was one of the guys that invented that word!” The replies were always similar to “ummm yeah whatever” or “yeah and I’m the King of France”. I don’t interject that way any more, but I’m still amused and think of the wet pile of laundry in the cabin every time I hear it. Two weeks ago, I heard my mother in law (from Florida) say “The Word”. I didn’t say anything but I think I laughed out loud. The conversation continued unabated as I smiled quietly to myself.
I’ve lost touch with most camp friends, but think of my camp days often. At least, every time I hear somebody say that something is humongous. I also wonder now if Hume does his own laundry.