Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘bodgery’

word-coiners (16th century)

by David Crystal

The history of English contains thousands of words that never made it – coinages invented by individual writers that simply didn’t catch on. There is just a single instance of bodgery recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is from the playwright Thomas Nashe, who used it in 1599. It means ‘bungling, botched work’.

Some 16th-century poets and playwrights seem almost to have coined words for a living. Nashe was second only to Shakespeare in the number of words whose first recorded use is found in his writing – nearly 800 – and several did become a permanent part of the language, such as conundrum, grandiloquent, multifarious and balderdash. Nashe also coined a word which would one day receive new life in science fiction: earthling.

But, like Shakespeare, quite a few of his coinages evidently didn’t appeal. Either they were never used by anyone else, as far as we know, or they had a brief flurry of usage before being quietly dropped. Probably no tears would ever be shed over the loss of collachrymate (‘accompanied by weeping’) or baggagery (‘worthless rabble’). But I rather regret that bodgery disappeared (though bodge and bodger are still heard in some dialects), along with tongueman (‘good speaker’) and chatmate (‘gossip’).

The list of words that never made it has a surreal quality. From Philip Sidney we have disinvite, hangworthy, rageful and triflingness. From Edmund Spenser, disadventurous, jolliment, schoolery and adviceful. From John Marston, cockall (‘perfection’), bespirtle (‘to spot with vice’), fubbery (‘cheating’) and glibbery (‘slippery’) – creations Lewis Carroll would have been proud of. Sometimes it’s impossible to say why one word stayed and another didn’t. Why did Spenser’s tuneful catch on but his gazeful did not?

However, you can never tell what will happen. Musicry was coined by John Marston, and nobody used it after him – until 1961, when a writer revived it for a book on the arts. Nashe’s chatmate is currently the only instance of its use in the Oxford English Dictionary. But that will soon change, for in the world of chatrooms, social networking and internet dating, what do we find? Chatmates. There’s hope for bodgery yet.

This is the second in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘gaggle’. Scroll back for ‘mead’.

2 thoughts on “Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘bodgery’

  1. It seems to me that in order to catch on, a word has to be both useful and distinct enough from other words to be easily memorable. Bodge seems so close to botch in meaning and sound that it’s pretty well the same word (assuming botch was around at the time).

    We do have words which express fine shades of meaning—but maybe those mostly need to be significantly different words from each other? Not sure. But I think with new words either the meaning or the sound of the word needs to be significantly different from existing words.

    At first sight the British English words disc and disk look like an exception to my theory (where a disc is anything circular and flat, while a disk is specifically a disc used as computer storage). The sound is identical and the meaning differs slightly. Except that they’re not new words: a single word with two spellings has acquired two divergent meanings.

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