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Ostrobogulous

Pronounced /ˌɒstrəʊˈbɒɡjʊləs/Help with pronunciation

The word is weird not only because it looks strange and is rather rare but because it can refer to something weird (or a strange, bizarre or generally unusual happening). To increase its peculiarity, it can also mean something mildly risqué, indecent or pornographic.

“Ostrobogulous” was Vickybird’s favourite word. It stood for anything from the bawdy to the slightly off-colour. Any double entendre that might otherwise have escaped his audience was prefaced by, “if you will pardon the ostrobogulosity”.

Magic my Youth, by Arthur Calder-Marshall, 1951.

It was coined by Victor Neuburg (Vickybird in the quotation), a gay British Jewish poet and writer and a close friend of the occultist Aleister Crowley, whose sexual magic practices he helped develop.

Neuburg said that the word was formed, highly irregularly as you might expect, from Greek ostro, rich, plus English bog, dirt, from the schoolboy slang sense of the toilet, and ending in Latin ulus, full of. So “full of rich dirt”. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t agree, arguing that the first part is from the adjective oestrous. But we ought to let Victor Neuburg have the last word, as it was his creation, even though he was a bit shaky on his etymology — the Greek word was ostreon, a type of mollusc (it’s the source, via Latin, of English oyster) that was harvested to obtain a rare and expensive purple dye, hence figuratively something rich.

Another meaning of ostrobogulous turns up occasionally.

I started out making toys because it was something I could do with no money, an artistic family and a Victorian sewing machine. In the evenings I made “ostrobogulous” toys, a term my mother used to mean harmlessly mischievous, and sold them in Heal’s, where I worked by day.

The Times, 8 Nov. 2003.

This matches a sense known to reader Graham Hill: “When I was at secondary school in the late 1960s ostrobogulous was used as an alternative name for a gonk.” (For those too young to remember, or who live in a country in which they never caught on, a gonk was a small furry soft toy, popular at the time.)

Ostrobogulous is a favourite of people like me who collect interestingly weird words. A notable appearance, in July 2009, was in the Daily Mail, a British family paper which might have looked askance at it had its editors known of its indecorous antecedents. It was quoted as the favourite word of Professor Christian Kay, who worked for 42 years on the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Sep. 2009

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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-ost1.htm
Last modified: 12 September 2009.