Puke

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.”

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