Q From S Norman: While reading Thackeray’s Book of Snobs I came across the phrase sitting bodkin. A search supplied the definition, “to ride in a carriage between two others, the accommodation being only for two”. It cited Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I’m still unsure about bodkin. Is it the knife bodkin or the odds bodkin bodkin?
A A good question. This is a strange expression, known also as riding bodkin, one which scholars of William Makepeace Thackeray’s time (the middle of the nineteenth century) were as much puzzled about as you are. It is fairly common in nineteenth-century novels in Britain and also occasionally appears in the US. Thackeray seems to have been especially fond of it, since it appears in The History of Pendennis as well as in the two you mention. Another example, from a contemporary of his:
The carriage will have to go backwards and forwards four times now to fetch them all. So your daughter can come quite easily, Mr. Gibson, and I shall be very glad to see her for your sake. She can sit bodkin with the Brownings, I suppose?
Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1866.
Several suggestions about its origin were based on the known senses of bodkin. Before it was a blunt needle it was — as you say — a short pointed weapon, which explains Hamlet’s “with a bare bodkin”, an unsheathed dagger. Might old vehicles, people asked, have had a place between the seats to store a sword or bodkin? Might a person sitting between two others on a seat not meant for three necessarily have had to be thin, like a bodkin? Or might the third person have to be pressed into place, like a blunt bodkin into cloth? This last image appears here:
So down thy hill, romantic Ashbourne, glides
The Derby dilly, carrying Three Insides.
One in each corner sits, and lolls at ease,
With folded arms, propt back, and outstretched knees,
While the pressed Bodkin, punched and squeezed to death,
Sweats in the midmost place, and scolds, and pants for breath.
The Loves of the Triangles, by George Canning, published in the Anti-Jacobin on 23 Apr. 1798. Dilly is short for diligence, a type of stagecoach, a name abbreviated from French carrosse de diligence, a speedy coach.
Yet another idea is that bodkin here isn’t either of these senses but a condensed form of bodikin, a small body, where the -kin ending indicates something small of its kind, as in gherkin and napkin (but not bodkin, which seems to be Celtic, a modified form of Scottish Gaelic biodag or Welsh bidog, a dagger). Bodikin also turns up in the old oath you mention, odds bod(i)kins, short for “God’s body”. To be able to sit bodkin, then, might mean that you had to make yourself as small as possible.
There is one other recorded sense for bodkin, though what, if anything, this has to do with sitting bodkin is unclear:
BODKIN Amongst sporting men, applied to a person who takes his turn between the sheets on alternate nights, when the hotel has twice as many visitors as it can comfortably lodge; as, for instance, during a race-week.
The Slang Dictionary, by John Camden Hotten, 1869.
Once again we have no clear idea of the true origin of an idiom, but at least you will now appreciate why nineteenth-century scholars were in the dark about it!