Yes, he’s “snoozing contentedly in front of the fire,” but has he moved lately?

Dear Word Detective:  What is derivation of “bedraggled”? — Alan Dolit.

That’s an interesting question for a number of reasons.  “Bedraggled” is actually a participle, a derivative of a verb that can be used as another part of speech, often as an adjective (“He wore a bedraggled coat”).  The underlying verb in the case of “bedraggled” is “bedraggle,” meaning “to drag something (especially clothing) through dirt, mud or the like.”  But one rarely encounters the verb “bedraggle” itself, and a search of Google News for it produces exactly zero results.  Plug in “bedraggled,” however, and you get, as of this moment, 172 results, including the touching story in the (London) Telegraph of Princess Beatrice’s dog, which, having gone missing for three weeks, turned up again (“Max is back. He was hungry, bedraggled, but is now snoozing contentedly in front of the fire”).

Incidentally, the Telegraph adds that “The family suspects that Max fell down a rabbit hole on the 5,000-acre estate.”  Three weeks?  That’s a heck of a rabbit hole.  I smell a cover up.  I’m not entirely certain who this “Princess Beatrice” person is (apart from apparently being fifth in line to the throne), but clearly Max saw something he shouldn’t have and needed a vacation.  Odds are it’s not even the same dog.

Meanwhile, back at your question, “bedraggle” first appeared in the early 18th century, coincidentally already in the form “bedraggled” (“Poor Patty Blount, no more be seen Bedraggled in my walks so green,” Jonathan Swift, 1727).  The “be” prefix in “bedraggled” carries the sense of “all over” or “thoroughly” (as in “besmirch” or “befoul”).  “Draggle” itself is what’s called a “frequentative” form of the verb “to drag,” indicating repeated action, in this case many instances of being dragged through mud, etc.  Many of our familiar English words are actually frequentatives, including “patter” (the sound of many “pats”), “scuffle” (much “scuffing” going on), “waggle” (more than one “wag”), and “crackle” (a series of “cracking” sounds).  In general, English frequentatives tend to end in either “er” (as in “flitter,” to repeatedly “flit”) or “le” (“sniffle,” meaning many “sniffs”).

The word “drag” is, as one might imagine, very old, and comes ultimately from a Indo-European root “dhragh,” meaning “to drag on the ground.”  By the way, the use of “in drag” to mean “a man dressed as a woman” is not a loose acronym for “Dressed As a Girl,” as is sometimes proclaimed in the sillier precincts of the internet.  “Drag” in this sense is a relic of the Victorian theater, and comes from the sensation, unfamiliar to male actors playing roles requiring female dress for whatever reason, of the long dresses of the period “dragging” across the stage as they moved.

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