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Gorbellied

Pronounced /ˈɡɔːbɛlid/Help with pronunciation

A person who is gorbellied is corpulent, with a protruding belly.

It seems probable that it derives from Old English gor or gore, meaning at first dung or dirt; in the sixteenth century it shifted sense to our modern one of blood that has been shed as a result of violence.

Gorbelly came along early in the sixteenth century, in a poem by John Skelton. The adjective followed soon after — Shakespeare used it in his Henry IV, Part One: “Hang ye, gorbellied knaves, are ye undone?” It dropped out of use in the nineteenth century, with one of the last users in a direct line from the ancients being Douglas Jerrold, who wrote “The gorbellied varlets, with mouths greasy with the goods of cheated worth.”

These days it appears only rarely, being a word resurrected to give a sense of another age in historical fiction or fantasy, as in Harry Turtledove’s alternate history, Ruled Britannia, in which the English failed to defeat the Armada in 1588 and in which the delightful scene-setting opening line is “Two Spanish soldiers swaggered up Tower Street toward William Shakespeare.” Turtledove writes later, “‘Consumption catch thee, thou gorbellied knave!’ a boatman yelled.”

To save anyone pointing it out, it’s also in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Jun. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gor2.htm
Last modified: 21 June 2008.