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Mammock

Ken Hopson emailed me a copy of a letter he had found in the Amherst County courthouse records of Virginia. A farmer sent it in March 1896 to the Southern Railway, claiming recompense for a bull that had been severely injured by a train:

i tell you he is no better than ded and i wish you wod make your secshun boss repote him as ded and pay me for him as an animile kild on the rale rode he is certanly unqualifided for a Bool and is too mommoked up fer a stere and he is too tuf for befe.

In the American South you may still hear mommocked up or mammocked up for mangled, mauled, torn to pieces or severely beaten. The word is conventionally spelled mammock in the new dictionaries that contain it and the verb by itself is said to mean not only tear to pieces, but also more loosely to botch, mess up, mix up or confuse. Mammock on its own has also referred to getting a severe beating:

All disciplined men of the fighting forces were knocked about until their skins became as red or blue as their jackets, and were sometimes even mammocked to death.

History of Penal Methods, by George Ives, 1914.

It has been widely known in English dialect. A century ago, the English Dialect Dictionary recorded it in a group of miscellaneous senses, for fragments of food, an untidy mess or muddle, a scarecrow, an absurdly dressed person or a poor eater. Its entry does have mammocked-up, but recorded it only from Shropshire for a person “dressed up fantastically and absurdly”. Noun and verb are recorded from the sixteenth century and Shakespeare used the verb in Coriolanus: “He did so set his teeth, and tear it. / Oh, I warrant how he mammockt it”.

The best that professional etymologists can come up with is that it might be from an imitation of the sound of chewing or muttering. They point to the obsolete British English mamble, to mutter, or eat without appetite. A relative was mumble, which began life with the idea of trying to eat with toothless gums, a condition that led to our modern sense of a person speaking indistinctly. Somehow mamble shifted to tearing at food with one’s teeth.

Something similar may have happened with mammock and from that meaning it diverged into its numerous other senses.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 25 Nov. 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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 25 November 2014.