Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Hanged Man Is a Strong Man

Even the most negative words get their time in the sun.
widdiful (WI-di-full) — adjective: 1. deserving to be hanged. 2. scampish, rascally. 3. industrious, hard-working. noun: someone deserving to be hanged.
It’s a strange word that most English-speakers wouldn’t recognize. But some do, and some might even call you widdiful. If someone did, there’s can one of three things: that you should die, that you’re naughty (but in a fun way!) or that you’re a laborious sort (who’s probably not much fun but goon on you anyway). So which is it? And how did one word come to mean three different things?

According to World Wide Words, widdiful comes from the Scottish widdy or widdie, which in term comes from the standard English withy, referring to a flexible branch (such as you might find on a willow) from which something might be hung. The word eventually came to refer to the rope a condemned person hangs from, with widdiful meaning either “deserving to be hanged” or “someone deserving to be hanged.” And from there, it got nerfed to just mean “rascal” — a kind of hearty, Scottish version of “you are bad.”

Yet widdiful also took an unexpected turn around Yorkshire. There, it instead has a positive meaning — “hard-working” or “tough.” No clue why, though I’d guess that it has something to do with the strength of a pliant branch.

Of course, we can all benefit from knowing a word that can either be a compliment or an insult.

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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