A Scots word of eighteenth-century vintage, it has appeared infrequently but usually to refer to a depressed state or to what Philip Howard once described in Winged Words as “meaning something like accidie or being down in the hypochondriac dumps”. That it has also been glossed as an imaginary malady and a needless fuss about nothing probably reflects the view of earlier generations about mental illness.
Seemingly a blend of humbug and dudgeon, it is first recorded here:
Hum Durgeon, an imaginary illness; he has got the hum durgeon, the thickest part of his thigh is nearest his arse, i.e. nothing ails him except low spirits.
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Captain Francis Grose, 1785.
In the winter of 1826-7 when Sir Walter Scott was suffering badly from rheumatism and other ailments, he recorded in his Diary:
February 26: At home, and settled to work; but I know not why I was out of spirits — quite Laird of Humdudgeon, and did all I could to shake it off, and could not. February 27: Humdudgeonish still; hang it, what fools we are! I worked, but coldly and ill. Yet something is done. I wonder if other people have these strange alternations of industry and incapacity.
The word has been so long obsolete that it has dropped out of most dictionaries except Chambers, whose Edinburgh antecedents cause it to retain many Scotticisms. This is one of its very rare appearances in recent decades:
I tell you, Uncle Bill’s always agreeable. It's Buckle who’d put a spoke in the wheel — sour old cheesebox — but it’s the luckiest thing in the world, he’s been called away to Deptford on two days’ urgent private business — rich aunt dying or some such humdudgeon — and won't be back till tomorrow evening.
Black Hearts in Battersea, by Joan Aiken, 1965.
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