X v Y: “Dr. Livingstone, I assume??”

The third post in Glosso’s X v Y series looks at assume v presume.

In 1869, Henry Stanley – a Welsh-born journalist writing for the New York Herald – was dispatched to Africa to search for David Livingston, a missionary and explorer on the “dark continent” who had not been heard from in several years. Stanley’s efforts were rewarded in October 1871 when he finally stumbled on the ailing Scotsman in Tanzania and uttered the four words that would inextricably link that bold word of belief and supposition – “presume” – with the “hale white” elusive traveller. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” is what Stanley is said to have asked*, to which Livingstone replied: “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

Why did Stanley, a man of words, choose to “presume” and not to “assume” that he had been successful in his search?

Fowler in 1926 maintained that there is a stronger element of postulation or hypothesis in assume than in presume, which is to hold a belief based on external evidence. In the 1965 edition of his Modern English Usage, he differentiates between them as follows: “Where the words are roughly synonymous, ie. in the sense suppose, the object-clause after presume expresses what the presumer really believes, till it is disproved, to be true; that after assume expresses what the assumer postulates, often as a confessed hypothesis. It is possibly this distinction that has led to the curious variation in the adverbs ordinarily used – assumedly (as has in fact been supposed by someone as a hypothesis) and presumably (as anyone might naturally suppose from the evidence).”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary: assume is “to take or accept as being true, without proof, for the purpose of argument or action”; presume is “to suppose to be true; take for granted’.

Some might argue that there is a faint whiff of presumptuousness about presume, where assume seems more tentative and – ironically – unassuming.

During the years I’ve lived in America, I’ve been struck by how people tend to presume much more often than they assume – especially when they’re talking in the first person. This seems to be in contrast to the UK where (at least in my experience) we are generally more inclined to assume than to presume. I’ve often wondered whether this is simply a Brit-Yank difference (or even a universal trend) in usage: perhaps assume is becoming extinct in Stanley’s adopted homeland (if not everywhere) thanks to the notoriety he gave to the word’s more self-assured cousin. The decline in usage of the adverb assumedly, compared to the resilience and colloquial triumph of presumably, would certainly bear out this theory of simple evolution.

However, I’ve often wondered whether there’s something more interesting at play here. Could it be that a deep cultural difference between the Brits and the Americans  – with the former tending to be more unassuming by nature, and not wanting to presume knowledge or understanding if there’s even the smallest chance of ambiguity – has shaped the usage of these two subtly different words of supposition? Can it be that the self-confidence so much more characteristic of the American than of the Englishman is putting mere hypothesis out of business, when it comes to the words he chooses, and replacing it with more daring assumption?

Curiously, it was an American friend, Rob Kapilow, who told me about a saying that warns of the dangers of any sort of supposition: “Assume makes an ass of you and me.” Can we take a logical leap and assume that “presume makes a Pres. of you and me”?

* There is some question about the authenticity of this greeting.

First posted April 2011