The Grammarphobia Blog

Breaking the codology

Q: My father emigrated from Ireland in 1924 with a head full of nonsense. He was never at a loss for something to say. I have lived my life by one of his expressions: “It’s a long road that has no turns.” In time he acknowledged that it was all “codology” (his word). I have come to realize, and accept, over time that the Irish are a very verbal race, and I regret that I did not pay more attention to the codology that he tried to fill my head with. He is long deceased but I have often wondered if there is such a word as “codology.” Hope you can help me.

A: Your father didn’t make up the word “codology.” In fact, James Joyce (the first person to use the word in print) probably didn’t make it up either. A likelier story is that both your father and Joyce absorbed it from their Irish surroundings.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “codology,” which it defines as “hoaxing, humbugging,” first appeared in print in Joyce’s novel Ulysses in 1922. Here’s the citation: “The why and the wherefore and all the codology of the business.”

The OED’s next published reference for the word is in a 1928 article in the Daily Express: “There is in Ireland a science unknown to us in England called Codology… The English is ‘leg-pulling’… When I received an invitation to breakfast at the Dublin Zoo I thought that I could detect the hand of the chief codologist.”

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says the word actually dates from around 1910, which would precede the Joyce reference by quite some time. It defines “codology” as “the practice of chaffing and humbugging.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang also dates “codology” to about 1910, and defines it as “the practice of disinformation, thus nonsense.”

Having had an Irish grandfather myself, I can tell you that he was a world-class codologist.

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