Long-lost for a reason.

Dear Word Detective: What is the definition of “couzened,” as in “was now resolved to be couzened no more”? Thanks for the help! — Rebecca.

Thanks for a good question. I remember running across that word many times over the years, and inferring its meaning from its context, but I’d never, until now, taken the time to investigate its background.

You don’t give a source for the quotation you cite (assuming it is a quotation from something you’ve read), but a Google search turns up only one source online for those exact words, “William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times From the Year 1602 to 1681,” which was published in London in 1715. Lilly was an interesting fellow, a famous English astrologer who specialized in predicting events with what is said to have been notable success. He predicted, most famously, the Great Fire of London fourteen years before it happened, for which he was rewarded by being investigated on suspicion of having started it himself. He was acquitted.

The particular passage in which Lilly uses “couzened” is titled “Of My Marriage the First Time,” and begins with a description of his beloved: “My mistress, who had been twice married to old men, was now resolved to be couzened no more; she was of a brown ruddy complexion, corpulent, of but mean stature, plain, no education, yet a very provident person, and of good condition….” Twice bitten and now once shy, Lilly’s paramour evidently had a low opinion of her former husbands, apparently with good reason.

To “cozen” (which is the standard spelling of the word today) is “to cheat, to deceive or to defraud by duping.” The word first appeared in English in the late 16th century, probably as slang of the criminal underworld.

There are two proposed origins of “cozen,” and this is one of those rare cases where both may be true. The more straightforward theory traces the word to the old Italian verb “cozzonare,” meaning “to play the horse trader” and, horse trading being a notoriously shifty business, “to play the crafty thief.”

A more colorful theory, however, traces “cozen” to the word “cousin” and specifically the Old French verb “cousiner,” meaning “to claim kinship in order to cheat.” Evidently it was not uncommon for knaves to go literally door to door, claiming to be the long-lost cousin of the residents, in order to gain their trust (and money). This theory is bolstered by the use of the English phrase “to make a cousin of” meaning “to cheat” in the 16th century.

As I said, both stories may be true. Perhaps the word did originally derive from the Italian “cozzonare,” but its resemblance to the English “cousin,” and the well-known use of fraudulent kinship to dupe victims by thieves, popularized “cozen.” Whatever the story, “cozen” is a very cool word.

1 comment on this post.
  1. Steve Todd:

    Samuel Pepys uses the word. From the context, I thought it meant cousin.

Leave a comment