The Grammarphobia Blog

In high dudgeon

Q: In your posting about adjectives and nouns that hang out together, you say “dudgeon” is seldom seen without “high.” My dictionary says “dudgeon” originally meant the handle of a dagger, but it doesn’t explain why it now means anger or resentment.

A: How did a dagger handle come to mean hard feelings? Nobody seems to know for sure, though that hasn’t stopped people from taking a stab at it.

Sorry about that! We made the same pun in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

In the book, we briefly mention the etymology of “in high dudgeon” during a discussion about the blooper “in high dungeon.”

Some word detectives have tried to link “dudgeon” with dygen, a Welsh word that means malice or resentment, but the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t see a connection.

The most likely theory is that the expression “in high dudgeon” originally had something to do with grabbing a dagger in anger.

Interestingly, two similar-sounding words, “bludgeon” and “curmudgeon,” are also etymological mysteries.

But “gudgeon,” a small fish used for bait, as well as a gullible person who’ll swallow anything, has a clear pedigree: It comes from goujon, the French word for the fish, which in turn is from gobius, the Latin for it.

Getting back to “dudgeon,” the word first showed up in the 15th century in the sense of the wood used to make the handle of a knife or dagger. Later, it came to mean the hilt or handle itself.

Shakespeare has Macbeth use the word in reference to the hilt of a dagger: “I see thee still, / And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood, / Which was not so before.”

But decades before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the early 1600s, “dudgeon” was being used to mean a feeling of anger or resentment.

The first citation in the OED for “dudgeon” used in this sense is from a 1573 entry in  The Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey: “Who seem’d to take it in marvelus great duggin.” (Harvey was an English writer and his book contained a collection of draft letters.)

The first OED example of “high” and “dudgeon” linked together are in Hudibras (1663), a mock heroic poem by Samuel Butler:

“When civil dudgeon first grew high, / And men fell out they knew not why; / When hard words, jealousies, and fears, / Set folks together by the ears.”

(The author of the poem was a 17th-century poet and satirist, not the better-known Victorian novelist of the same name.)

The OED’s first citation for the most common use of “dudgeon” today is from an 1885 issue of the Manchester Examiner: [He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon.”

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