DUDGEON, n. If you read fiction from or set in the nineteenth century, sometimes you encounter a character “in high dudgeon,” where “dudgeon” means anger, indignation, resentment, displeasure. I thought about using this word in my draft this week, but got stuck on the question of whether one has to be in high dudgeon. What if you only feel regular dudgeon? Or a little bit of dudgeon? Can you ever be in low dudgeon?
The answer, as it turns out, is that while you don’t have to be “in high dudgeon,” that set phrase is this word’s most common habitat. “Dudgeon” can be used by itself or with other descriptors. Here’s Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913):
HIGGINS [very sulky] You may take the whole damned houseful if you like. Except the jewels. They're hired. Will that satisfy you? [He turns on his heel and is about to go in extreme dudgeon].
“Dudgeon” also exists in the term “humdudgeon,” a combination with “hum” (a pretense, nonsense, kinda like “humbug”) that means a complaint about nothing. Humdudgeon seems to be chiefly Scottish and tragically obsolete.
Nobody knows where “dudgeon” comes from, but before it meant Henry Higgins being “very sulky,” it meant the handle of a dagger. Macbeth says “And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood” and he clearly means a knife handle. People don’t say that anymore, and we don’t know how we get from dudgeon-as-hilt to dudgeon-as-huff. My mind jumped to the idea of being angry enough to stab someone—or anger at being stabbed? you’re in high dudgeon if you have a dudgeon sticking out of your back? 🗡—but there isn’t any written attestation of a connection between the two definitions of “dudgeon” that I could find.
I did find a blogger named Larry suggesting that “dudgeon” (as in anger) might come from Italian “aduggiare,” to overshadow, and the expression “to take umbrage at” (to take offense at, but “umbrage” originally meant “shade”). This would be cool if it were true, but I would need to see some evidence. (Sorry, Larry.) Drawing connections between anger, offense, shade, and overshadowing made me think about “shade” as used in the 1980s ballroom scene by Black and Latinx drag queens, a usage that has now filtered into the mainstream because of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
There does, at least, seem to be a longstanding connection between shadows and insults. An Italian friend once told me that her preferred thing to yell at other drivers was “Levati dal cazzo, fai un’ombra sulle mie palle” (Get off my dick, you are making a shadow on my balls—apologies if my Italian is imperfect), which is knowledge that I treasure. (The other member of my household, upon learning this phrase, said, “Well, that makes sense because my balls must be in full light at all times.”) As far as I can tell, “levati dal cazzo” is a standard swear sort of like “fuck off” or “get the fuck out,” but the bit about the shadow doesn’t generate a lot of search results, so I will credit it to my friend. I’ve never said anything so creative or specific when cut off in traffic. I don’t tend to be articulate in dudgeon, high or low.
This week in Capital-R Romance, I read more of Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, including a chapter dedicated to clothing descriptions in Balzac’s fiction, which was delicious, but I think I will save discussion of that for next week.
I only read one small-r romance novel this week (apologies, I’ve been in kind of a reading slump) but it was lovely!
Team Phison (bi m/gay m, both cis, contemporary) by Chace Verity is a short, sweet romance starring two characters with some traits that are still unusual in the genre—Phil is 55 years old and Tyson is fat—which I found refreshing. There’s also some beloved familiar tropes in this, notably a “the grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one” opposites-attract dynamic and a really great, supportive, nosy, diverse group of friends. It was smart, funny, and paced just right. Content warnings: main character is estranged from family (not because of queerness), sex.
In things that are neither Romance nor romance, here’s Charlie Jane Anders writing about The Expanse and space opera for Esquire—her definition of “space opera” is more expansive than mine and she delves into the genre’s history.
See you next Sunday!
I'd never heard the phrase before, and am excited to be able to express myself next time I am in extreme dudgeon!
I've always loved the finding of opposite words that are usually only seen in one circumstance, if that makes sense (overwhelmed and whelmed, disgruntled and gruntled). I blame this on the formative influence of "The Disreputable History of Franke Landau-Banks" by E. Lockhart, who managed to combine private school, language studies, an ancient fraternity with a basset hound mascot, incredibly well-organized pranks and fighting the patriarchy all into one excellent book that was catnip to middle-school me. And present me, in many ways - perhaps a reread is in order!
ETA: Apparently some people refer to them as "unpaired words" because the paired word fell out of fashion (kempt, couth, ruly, etc.) However, if they come from French (or Latin? I know very little about linguistics tbh) I guess they aren't as possible - one can't be sheveled, or mayed.
Either way, this column had me quite gruntled, and in very low dudgeon indeed.
Two thoughts on today's column:
1. I was surprised that you didn't go into spelling as a clue to etymology. The -geon ending seems like an obvious clue. Other words in this family: pigeon, surgeon, dungeon, bludgeon, and, my favorite, curmudgeon. I assume that all these words are entering English through French, but I'm not energetic enough to do the research to verify this hypothesis.
Similarly, all the -gh- words, with all their odd pronunciations, I've assumed enter English through Germanic/Anglo-Saxon routes. Again, I've wanted to explore the history of all these pronunciations, but...
Of course, this gets into the interesting issue of when spellings were developed and "fixed". (I was mulling on the spelling of "view" the other day. Who decided that was the proper spelling?!?)
2. Regarding the use of "balls" in slang (and the riposte of "the other member of your household", I'm reminded that in the Ras/Willis household, when Mark and Ivan were having guy time (watching a basketball game on TV or such), they referred to it as "time to air one's balls". This elicited a similar response ("I didn't know they needed space to breathe..."), but I don't remember asking where the phrase came from.
Hope all is well with you and the other member(s) of your household. Here's to the day when we can see one another "irl".