Idiots

To add to the gaiety of the nation in these trying times, I have for some time now been tweeting (@Prof_hedgehog) a #WordOfTheDay drawn from Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English: Containing Words from the English Writers Previous to the Nineteenth Century Which Are No Longer in Use, or Are Not Used in the Same Sense; and Words Which Are Now Used Only in Provincial Dialects, first published in two volumes in 1857.

Wright (1810–77) was an enthusiastic antiquarian who (just about) made his living as a prolific author of pamphlets, books and articles on the history and archaeology of England.

Thomas Wright, c.1859, in a photogravure taken from a photograph by the pioneering portrait firm of Maull and Polyblank.

He was a co-founder (with Charles Roach Smith) of the British Archaeological Association in 1843, secretary of the Camden Society, secretary and treasurer of the Percy Society, and secretary, joint secretary and eventually vice-president of the Ethnological Society, and produced editions of works for the Shakespeare and Caxton Societies. He became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1837, and collaborated with J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps in the birth of two other short-lived ventures, the Historical Society of Science and The Archaeologist and the Journal of Antiquarian Science.

The number and range of his writings, from editions of medieval texts to works on sorcery and magic, Anglo-Saxon history, the history of Cambridge University, medieval political satire and songs, and the Roman city of Uriconium (Wroxeter), to a study of the works of caricaturist James Gillray, was extraordinary, and led to contemporary criticism that he was a hack who lacked the necessary scholarly and editorial skills to produce serious work.

None the less, he managed to stay afloat economically until 1872, when he seems to have developed a form of dementia, as well as possibly suffering from diabetes, while his wife had become nearly blind. They had an income of sorts from a Civil List pension and the donations of friends, but were not capable of looking after themselves, and the last five years of his life were clearly very sad. His biography in the ODNB sums up his achievement thus: ‘Much of Wright’s work has been entirely superseded but it is still a matter for surprise how often the only thing written on a subject is what Wright wrote or transcribed, and it is usually unwise to ignore his work, however carelessly done.’

So, with that reservation in mind, I shall continue to excavate his Dictionary for interesting, unlikely, or straightforwardly charming words. Flicking through regularly, I have been struck by the number of words for ‘idiot’, some of obvious derivation, others rather less so. Here is a small selection – there are many more!

Two Regency coxcombs.

Airling, a coxcomb; Bacon, a clown; Bletherhead, a blockhead; Bullfinch, a stupid fellow; Bunch-clod, a clown; Cake, a foolish fellow; Dulberhead, a blockhead; Flabbergullion, a clown; Fondling, an idiot. (I rather like ‘fondling’ – it sounds as though it might be said in exasperation rather than with malice?)

Surely an insult to bullfinches everywhere?

Gapesnatch, a fool; Gape-stick, an awkward country clown; Gobbin, a greedy clownish person; Goddard, a fool; Gomerill, a silly fellow; Gowk, a simpleton.

The cuckoo was known as a gowk (or its variant ‘gawk’), possibly because of its limited vocal repertoire?

Grizzle-demundy, a person always grinning; Grutnol, a blockhead; Gump, a fool; Howball, a simpleton; Innocent, a silly, ignorant person.

A court jester, or fool.

Jack-adams, a fool; Jack-a-nods; a simpleton; Kime, a simpleton; Knockledeboinard, a rough clown; Lobcock, a lubber or clown; Looby, a clown or awkward fellow; Maumsey, a simpleton; Mumchance, stupid; Niddywit, an idiot; Nincumpoop, a simpleton.

Pantalone, the miserly but foolish old man, from the Italian Commedia del’Arte.

Nobby, a fool; Pantalone, a zany or fool; Pestle-head, a blockhead; Punch-clod, a clodhopper; Ralph-spooner, a fool; Sap-head, a blockhead; Sawter-crawn, a simpleton; Simon, an idiot; Slotch, a clownish fellow; Tiffy-taffy, a silly trifler; Tittle-goose, a prattling fool.

The puffin was known as the tomnoddy, but was also called ‘the bishop’, perhaps because of its portly gait?

Toby-trot, a simple fellow; Tomnoddy, a fool; Wantwit, a simpleton; Weazel, a fool; Wetewold, a wittol; Wet-goose, a simpleton; Woofet, a simpleton; Wopstraw, a country bumpkin; Yawnups, a fool; Zoty, a fool.

‘Mr Quick in the character of Tony Lumpkin’, the country bumpkin in Goldsmith‘s She Stoops to Conquer. John Quick (1748–1831) created the role, and was famous as a comic actor, later specialising in grumpy old men.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also a very wide range of terms for a prostitute, or a woman of easy virtue at any level of society: another list begins to take shape …

Caroline

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