Dear Word Detective: I am reading Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens and right now I am regretting not having sought out an annotated copy. The latest word to throw me is “gull,” which noun Dickens uses to describe Lord Frederick. I know, of course, that a gull is a bird, and I have also found a secondary definition meaning “fool,” and a related verb form meaning “to fool.” So does it have another, archaic meaning, referring to a peer or lord, or is Dickens simply calling Lord Frederick an idiot every other time he pops up? — Jacob.
Oh boy, Dickens. Speaking of Dickens, if you own a TV, you absolutely must snag the DVD of the BBC/PBS serialized production of his novel “Little Dorrit” made in 2008. It is truly extraordinary, the best thing I’ve seen on TV in years (and evidently I’m not nuts, because it won seven Emmys). It was odd to watch this last spring, in the midst of the “global financial crisis,” as much of the story revolves around Marshalsea debtor’s prison in London, and a large role in the story is played by a financial wizard named Merdle (a monicker as apt as Madoff) who turns out to be every bit as rotten as today’s scoundrels.
Most people associate “gull” with the seagull, which is actually not just one bird but rather, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Any long-winged, web-footed bird of the family Laridae and sub-family Larinae….” Gulls are almost always found near major bodies of water, although a large number of them live in Central Ohio (not known for its major bodies of water), supposedly driven down here from the Great Lakes by a blizzard in the 1970s. Could be, I suppose. All I know is that they definitely didn’t come for the pizza. This kind of “gull” takes its name from the Welsh word for the bird, “gwylan.”
Gulls are not as smart as crows, but they’re not stupid, which presents a problem in explaining the use of “gull” since the 16th century as slang for “simpleton, dupe, sucker.” One possible explanation lies in the fact that there is another, entirely unrelated, “gull,” dating back to the 14th century, that means a very young bird of any species. This “gull” probably derives from the Old Norse word “gulr,” meaning “yellow,” referring to the pale yellow plumage of many baby birds. Such young birds are not very bright, so that would fit with the “simpleton” sense of the slang “gull.”
There’s another possible source for “gull” meaning “fool,” and that is yet another “gull,” an old English dialect word meaning “throat” (related to “gullet”), in this case carrying the sense of “someone who will swallow anything.” Whatever the source, the same root also gave us the verb “to gull” in the 16th century meaning “to play for a fool,” which in turn produced the adjective “gullible.”
That’s a lot of “gulls” for one language, but, unfortunately, there is no other “gull” referring to nobility in a respectful sense. So yes, Dickens was indeed calling Lord Frederick Verisopht (another great Dickens name) a dupe and a fool. On the bright side, according to a search of “Nickleby” on Google Books, he only did it twice.