Clamjamfry

Not our sort, Angus.

Dear Word Detective: Some time ago I encountered the word “clamjamfry,” which I was told referred to “the worthless masses.” I’ve consistently used it as an alternative to “hoi polloi.” One thing that has me nonplussed is that I have never discovered this word in any kind of reputable dictionary. The word certainly sounds as though it has a heck of an origin. Can you shed any light on this term, which appears to be a poster-child for recondite speech? — Topher D.

I must admit that there are times, writing this column, when I feel a bit like a performing hamster. Someone asks a question, I jump into the wheel, work my little paws furiously until I find the answer (or, occasionally, don’t), jump out of the wheel, trot over to my tiny hamster typewriter and put it all down with the old hunt-and-peck. Then I have a Lilliputian cup of joe and pick another question. It can get a little monotonous.

But I found this question instantly intriguing. I am, it is true, easily intrigued (you should see the junk I’ve bought on eBay), but I eagerly went looking for “clamjamfry.”

The first stop in my search was, as usual, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), where I found no listing. Bummer. But I then found some internet references for “clamjamfry” indicating that it might be a Scots dialect term, so I checked the excellent online Dictionary of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk). Bingo! “Clamjamfry” is defined as “A company of people; generally used contemptuously, hence a mob, rabble, the riff-raff of a community.” It can also mean “Hurly-burly, row, commotion” and “Worthless odds and ends, rubbish,” a sense now largely obsolete. As a verb, “clamjamfry” means “to crowd or clutter up,” “to chatter or gossip” and “to roam about aimlessly, to loiter.”

The Dictionary of the Scots Language also listed a variety of alternate spellings of “clamjamfry,” so I went back to the OED and discovered the word was indeed listed, under “clamjamphrie,” with the same basic definitions. It seems to have first appeared in Scots and Northern England dialects in the early 19th century, and its exact roots are a mystery. The OED, however, suggests that “clamjamfry” is a combination of “clan” (in the Scottish sense of “ancestral group”) plus “jampher,” a Scots dialect word meaning “trifler, idler.” That would give “clamjamfry” the meaning of “the riff-raff or rabble of a clan,” which would certainly match the sense of “hoi polloi” (“the common people,” from Greek for “the many”).

The best thing about “clamjamfry” is that it is still very much in use in Scotland and the rest of the UK today (“As the last of the children’s banners swept down the Mound the guests, by now a wholly disordered clamjamfrey, ambled back up the hill for their lunch in Parliament Hall,” 1999). So now we have a great new word to play with.

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