What’s a hurdy-gurdy?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

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: hurdy gurdy. 

Of course, I know what a hurdy-gurdy is. It’s a stringed instrument (pictured above) that produces sound by a crank-turned wheel rubbing against strings. You can think of it as a bit like a cross between a violin and bagpipes. That’s because, in addition to having a keyboard (used for playing the melody) most hurdy-gurdies also have drone strings, so called, because they sound all the time. (I like bagpipes but I recognize that not everyone feels the same way.)

I encountered the word hurdy-gurdy recently when reading the 2015 memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexendra Fuller. Here’s how she used it, unusually, as an adjective.

Because seen in a certain light—the flat, hot light of a summer afternoon, for example—that promising dream has a depressing, thrill-ride quality about it, hurdy-gurdy with brightness, loud and distracting. 

I’m predisposed to like the word because it’s a rhyming compound or reduplication (along with: willy nilly, whim wam, and tittle tattle) and these terms are just fun. At the same time, however, I realized I knew nothing about its etymology and I welcomed the chance to correct that omission.

Alas, linguists know little about the origins of this word. The best that can be said is that it dates back to 1749 and is thought to be imitative of the instrument’s sound.

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