What’s the origin of ‘hornswoggle’?

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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: hornswoggle…

When I encountered the word hornswoggle in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel City of Girls, I knew exactly what it meant: to cheat or to deceive.

Here is how Gilbert used the word:

My father would do anything to hornswoggle the government.

As soon as I read it, I realized I knew nothing about the word’s etymology so I made a note to follow up. Sadly, all I could learn from my etymological dictionary was that the word dates back to 1829 where it appeared in an issue of The Virginia Literary Magazine in a glossary of Americanisms.

(Other words from 1829 include: absenteeism, beer belly, deterrent, fingerling, glassblowing, orange pekoe, pterodactyl, Siamese twin, technology and whole-hog. An interesting snapshot of society during that year, don’t you think?)

In 1913, a character in Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon complains, “We’re hornswoggled. We’re backed to a standstill. We’re double-crossed to a fare-you-well”.

Seven years later, P. G. Wodehouse (inventor of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves), used it in Little Warrior: “Would she have the generosity to realize that a man ought not to be held accountable for what he says in the moment when he discovers that he has been cheated, deceived, robbed — in a word, hornswoggled?”

If you had asked me to guess at the origin of the word, I’d have traced it to Texas and said it had something to do with cattle. And, in fact, Peter Watts argues in A Dictionary of the Old West that it comes from cowpunching. A steer that has been lassoed around the neck will hornswoggle — wag and twist its head around frantically to try to slip free of the rope.

Sadly, there has never been any proof of this interpretation so it’s presumed to be a guess.

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