Linguists and etymologists don't seem to know where the term "dumpling" came from. Some imagine that there was in some old language a word like "dump" as a noun, but don't really say what it might have meant or where it would have come from. "Dumpling" would be its diminutive form. I wonder if the word "damp" has anything to do with it. A "dampling" could be a little piece of bread dough cooked in liquid or in a steamer. I'm just speculating.
In French, there are two words for dumpling — une quenelle or une boulette. Quenelles are often dumplings made with pureed meat, poultry, or fish in the dough, and they are shaped like a rugby ball or a U.S. football. Boulettes can be meatballs (boulettes de viande) or they can be vegetable or just plain bread dumplings, like the cornmeal dumplings I made yesterday. They are often cooked in and served with greens, soups, or stews.
My mother, like most North Carolina cooks, often made cornmeal dumplings to serve with collard (or other) greens, or with coastal specialties like stewed hard crabs. I have her recipes, handed down through the family. The dumplings are made with corn "meal" or semolina, with a small amount of wheat flour if you want, plus some salt and sugar, and some baking soda or baking powder. The liquid is water.
For my dumplings, I decided to make the kind of dough that people in the U.S. South cook in deep fat to make "hushpuppies" — fried cornbread. It's about the same thing as the dumpling mixture described above, but the liquid is either milk, buttermilk, or, in my case, plain yogurt, and the dough has an egg in it, to hold it together as it steams and to enrich it slightly. The recipe is simple.
8 oz. (450 grams) cornmeal (polenta in France)
1 tsp. each of salt, sugar, and baking soda or powder
4 fl. oz. (½ cup) plain yogurt
milk or water as needed for consistency
Mix all ingredients together, adding a very small amount of water or milk as needed to produce a stiff dough. Roll pieces of dough into balls about the size of a golf or ping-pong ball, or whatever shape you like. Steam the dough over boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes, or "float" them on top of a pot of greens or a thick stew to steam through. Serve hot.
You can add herbs, grated onion, grated cheese, or black pepper or other spices, to the dumpling dough as you see fit. You can make similar dumplings using wheat semolina instead of cornmeal, I'm sure. There you have it. "Damp bread" or dumplings. They are light, tender, and bready inside.