What does ‘hobbledehoy’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: hobbledehoy…

I thought I knew the meaning of the word ‘hobbledehoy,’ but it turns out I was only partly right.

I encountered it recently in the delightful novel The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine. I swear, I did not fall in love with the book simply because one of the main characters was named Daphne and the other Laurel (Daphne is the Greek word meaning laurel).

What I liked about the book was its charm and sense of humour and — as I’m the mother of triplets — its focus on multiple children. Daphne and Laurel are redheaded twins who share an obsession with words. The book covers most of their lives, from childhood — when they speak a secret “twin” language — to adulthood when Daphne becomes a copy editor and Laurel starts writing poetry.

And I was thrilled when the book gave me my word of the week: hobbledehoy. Here is how Schine used it:

Here was Fowler, the arbiter the authority, the last word of the last generation that cared about word usage, implying that distinguished, dignified words were themselves once new words, ungainly words, hobbledehoy.

I had thought that hobbledehoy meant awkward or ungainly, and it does — when it’s acting as an adjective. But it turns out the word is also a noun, referring to a clumsy or awkward youth. (See photo at the top of this post.)

Although the origin of the word remains unknown, its use dates back to the middle of the 16th century. Suspicion has focused on French or Anglo-French origins, but no appropriate word has been found there. First element is probably hob in its sense of “clown, prankster” (similar to hobgoblin). The second element is thought to come from Middle French de haye meaning, “worthless, untamed, wild,” or more literally “of the hedge.”

Peak use of the word appears to have occurred in 1926 but it has tailed off since then with brief blips of interest in 1949 and 2007.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Feb. 26/20.

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