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shameless pleading






The Immortal Barf?

Dear Word Detective: What does the word “puke” mean in the following sentence: “Wilt thou rob this leathern jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch…”? — George.

Hmm. For some reason, I have the odd feeling I’ve wandered into an episode of Jeopardy. Well, OK, what is King Henry the Fourth, Part One, by William Shakespeare? I’d like to expound on that answer, but I must admit that the play in question is not my strong suit. I can, however, recite large chunks of both Hamlet and Macbeth from memory should the need arise further down the page.

In any case, our boy Willie certainly had a way with words, and that passage, although probably perfectly intelligible to his contemporaries, presents us with a smorgasbord of mysterious terms. “Leathern jerkin” is fairly simple, meaning a tunic or short jacket made of leather. “Crystal button” and “agate ring” are easily understood indications of wealth and refinement. “Not-pated” is genuinely odd to our ears, since “pate” generally refers to the human head, and Shakespeare cannot have meant that the person under discussion was headless. As it happens, however, the now-obsolete English dialect term “not” (more commonly spelled “nott”) meant “short-haired” or, as is more likely in this case, “bald.” The reference to “caddis-garter” means the man’s stockings were secured with garters made of caddis ribbon, “caddis” being a type of wool cloth.

The phrase “puke-stocking” does give one pause. Read with our modern understanding of “puke,” it would seem to imply the unfortunate aftermath of either excess drinking or food poisoning. But there is, fortunately, an entirely different sort of “puke” involved in this passage. In 1598, when Shakespeare wrote his play, “puke” was a very fine grade of woolen cloth, often used to make stockings as well as other garments. This kind of “puke” first appeared in English in the mid-15th century, derived from the Middle Dutch word “puuc,” meaning “the best grade of cloth.” Interestingly, “puke” cloth was, in Shakespeare’s day, usually dyed deep bluish-black or dark brown, leading to the term “puke color.” This “puke,” however, is unrelated to the brownish-purple color we know today as “puce,” which takes its name from the French word for “flea.” Apparently if one looks very, very closely at fleas (I’ll pass, thanks), they are purple-brown in color.

Incidentally, our modern “puke” meaning “vomit” is almost as old as the fabric sort of “puke,” first appearing as a verb around 1600. It is thought to be “imitative” in origin, evocative of the sound itself, though it may also have been borrowed from the Dutch “spugen,” meaning “to spit.”

3 comments to Puke

  • Jeff

    Actually, ol’ Willy used “puking” to mean vomiting in As You Like It, usually thought to have been written in 1600 or the previous year.

  • Naughty Autie

    It was Shakespeare who created the word puke with the meaning ‘to vomit’ when, in the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ speech for ‘As You Like It’, he included the line, “At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms…”

  • Foma

    It has occurred to me that Shakespeare’s creative epithets might be thinly disguised sexual humor and that a ‘puke stocking’ might be a colloquial term for the linen fabrications originally described by prominent Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppio (yes, the one that ‘discovered’ the fallopian tube!) in his book De Morbo Gallico published in 1564. The purpose of the linen sock he described was to prevent syphilis, not as a contraceptive. Nevertheless, by Shakespeare’s time the use of sheep’s gut and other animal intestines as a form of protection against venereal disease was well known. In this light, a ‘puke-stocking’ as well as the awkwardly useless terms ‘leathern jerkin’ ‘Spanish pouch’ and ‘caddis-garter’ all seem to all relate to a similar thing of intimate apparel used by those of low reputation who would either frequent bordellos where it would be necessary or who would be so ignorant as to use such inappropriate gear to secure themselves against the ravages of disease.
    Just a thought.

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