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Hodmandod

A traditional English riddle runs

Though not a cow I have horns;
Though not an ass I carry a pack-saddle;
And wherever I go I leave silver behind me.

The answer, in a curious little southern English dialect word, sadly long since defunct, is hodmandod — in everyday language, a snail.

Before a snail was a hodmandod, it was a dodman, whose origin is puzzling, but may be related to the rare word dod for a rounded, bare hilltop; this comes from the Middle English dodden, to make the top of something bare, an activity you will agree definitely needs its own verb. The snail’s shell might have been fancifully compared to a bare hilltop. Dodman became extended through what Malcolm Jones described in Dialect in Wiltshire as a “childish, part-rhyming reduplication” to make hoddy-doddy and hodmandod. But dodman has outlived its extended relative and is still to be found in Norfolk dialect.

The earliest example of hodmandod on record is in a work by the famously arrogant and pedantic Elizabethan lawyer and writer Gabriel Harvey. When he moved to London from his home town of Saffron Walden (where saffron was once widely cultivated), he managed to get involved in an interminable series of controversial exchanges with some of the best pamphleteers of his time, including John Lyly and Thomas Nashe. Gabriel Harvey responded to a scornful putdown of his brother Thomas by Nashe, describing the latter in crude insults as

... the son of a mule, a raw grammarian, a brabbling sophister, a counterfeit crank, a stale rake-hell, a piperly rimer, a stump-worn railer, a dodkin author, whose two swords are like the horns of a hodmandod; whose courage [is] like the fury of a gad-bee; and whose surmounting bravery, like the wings of a butterfly.

Pierce’s Supererogation, or a New Praise of the Old Ass, by Gabriel Harvey, 1593. The spelling is modernised, but not the vocabulary; brabbling meant hair-splitting.

Somehow, perhaps through a mental association with a hunchback, the word also came to mean a deformed person:

His head was thrice broader than his body, which fortunate accident had made such a hodmandod one of the greatest philosophers of this age; but it had also given the appearance of one of those rude and grotesque figures which German wit carves out for a humorous pair of nutcrackers.

The Spirit of the Public Journals, 1807.

Alfred Watkins’ famous book of 1925, The Old Straight Track, was about the ancient tracks or ley lines that he believed criss-cross the British Isles. He argued that the original dodman was a surveyor with two poles for establishing sightlines from one hilltop to another. This might suggest that the snail was named after the surveyor through a visual link between its horns and his poles. It seems extremely unlikely and indeed Watkins derived the word — mistakenly — from the Welsh dodi, to lay or place, and from dodging, associating it with the actions of a surveyor moving his surveying rod back and forth until it accurately lined up with another one.

Some writers have confused dodman with dudman, a scarecrow. The latter looks like a mere variation but its senses show that it must have a different origin, though nobody knows what it is. We do know that it comes from duds in the sense of clothing, which came particularly to refer to rags and tatters. Duds is also the source of dud in the sense of something counterfeit, useless or broken.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Apr. 2014

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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.

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Last modified: 19 April 2014.