One of the great charms of our language is the mystery of so many word origins. When I was young and reading the Oxford English Dictionary, and happened on the phrase “origin unknown,” I felt cheated. I was naïve, and assumed all knowledge was rooted in mathematical certainty. I deferred disproportionately to authorities. Now that I know even less about the world, and little with certainty of any sort, I admire honestly earned expressions of ignorance.
Consider pigwidgeon. The unholy union of a pig, a pigeon and a widget? A marker in some obscure game? Perhaps one of those faintly comic words, like thingamajig, for an object forgotten or defying description. The OED pleads ignorance but speculates that the first syllable comes from pug, meaning “a term of endearment for a person” (and later, prostitute). The first definition of pigwidgeon is “fairy, dwarf, imp, or elf.” The second, labeled “derogatory,” is “a small or insignificant person or thing; a stupid or contemptible person.” (We’ll never run out of uses for that.)
I consulted the OED this time by way of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. His definition of pigwidgeon amounts to a one-sentence essay: “This word is used by Drayton as the name of a fairy, and is a kind of cant word for anything petty or small.” The OED cites Michael Drayton’s “Nymphidia” (1627): “Pigwiggen was this Fayrie knight, / One wondrous gratious in the sight / Of faire Queene Mab, which day and night, / He amorously obserued.”
This writer longs to find the appropriate context for such a delicious word. Also, for the word that precedes it in Johnson’s Dictionary: pigsney. His definition, ripe with misunderstanding: “A word of endearment to a girl.”
Dr. Johnson was born on this date, Sept. 18, in 1709.