Thursday, November 16, 2017

`Ninny-Hammers, Goosecaps, Joltheads'

I paused when I came to “jolter-head” in William Hazlitt’s “Merry England” (Lectures on the English Comic Writers, 1819). The meaning was clear from context: “They judge of the English character in the lump as one great jolter-head, containing all the stupidity of the country . . .” But where did it come from? The OED cites Hazlitt’s usage and refers the reader to another entry, jolt head: “a heavy-headed or thick-headed person; a blockhead.” The etymology, of course, is “obscure,” but one of the other citations is a gem and comes from Vol. 4, Chap. 4, LXXXIV of Tristram Shandy:

“And here without staying for my reply, shall I be called as many blockheads, numsculs, doddypoles, dunderheads, ninny-hammers, goosecaps, joltheads, nincompoops, and sh..t-a-beds--and other unsavoury appellations, as ever the cake-bakers of Lerne cast in the teeth of King Garangantan’s shepherds.”

Sterne’s hommage to one of his masters, Rabelais, is also a catalog of essential words. After all, we can never have enough synonyms for moron and buffoon. Yiddish is a virtual encyclopedia of such words (shmendrik, putz, shmegege, et. al.), but English has grown depleted. Use of ninny-hammer, though it shows up in Tolkien, seems to have peaked early in the eighteenth century. There’s no record of W.C. Fields using jolter-head or jolt head, but in The Bank Dick (1940), in the role of Egbert Sousé
(“Sousé – accent grave over the ‘e’!”), but he offered this advice to his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (“Sounds like a bubble in a bathtub”):

“Don’t be a luddy-duddy! Don’t be a mooncalf! Don’t be a jabbernowl! You’re not those, are you?”


slr in tx said...


No mention of Og Oggilby is properly made without reference to the estimable Grady Sutton, who brightened every picture in which he appeared.

I enjoy your posts every day of the week.

Powerintheland2 said...

Sir Laurence Olivier once commented to Noel Coward in the 1960s that the English actor Edward Woodward's name (he was the star of 'The Wicker Man') sounded like a 'fart in the bath.'