Dear Word Detective: I grew up in eastern North Carolina. When talking to us kids, my parents frequently used the word “mommick” (meaning “to ruin,” mess up, or shred like a cat on draperies). “Stop fighting! You’re mommicking my new sofa!” I’ve never heard the word anywhere else but have always thought it useful when speaking to dogs or children. Even people who’ve never heard the word before seem to know what it means. Is it a regional word? What’s the origin? — Donna Furman.
Eastern North Carolina? Just for fun, you should tell people you’re from Southern Eastern North Carolina. Then, while they’re trying to picture how that would possibly work, you can go through their pockets. It must be nice to come from somewhere where folks use colorful dialectical terms. Where I grew up, in suburban Connecticut fifty miles from New York City, we just said “mess up” or “tear up” in such cases. Every so often my mother would use a term she’d acquired in her childhood in Ohio (such as “scunner” for “grudge,” actually a Scots dialect word). But, for the most part, if you’ve seen “Leave It to Beaver,” you’ve seen (and heard) my childhood.
So I had never encountered “mommick,” and when I popped it into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), I discovered a number of interesting things. First off, the OED directs you from “mommick” to “mammock,” of which “mommick” is considered one of several forms (including “mommock,” “mummuck,” and “mammick”). The OED defines “mammock” as a verb to mean “to break, cut, or tear into fragments or shreds,” and as a noun to mean “a scrap or shred, a broken or torn piece.” The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) notes that use of the term in the US is primarily in the South, where as a noun it can also mean “a mess” and, as a verb, “to beat up.”
According to the OED, “mammock” first appeared as a noun in the early 16th century with the sense of “broken or torn piece” (“Whan mammockes was your meate, With moldy brede to eate,” circa 1529). The verb showed up about a century later, first found around 1616, in Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus (“Hee did so set his teeth, and teare it. Oh, I warrant how he mammockt it.”). Both those early examples refer to eating, and the OED offers the logical suggestion that “mammock” was onomatopoeic or “echoic” in origin, intended to mimic the sound of someone chewing something quite energetically and thoroughly. The “break, tear or mess up” senses of the verb would then be a natural extension of that literal “chew into pieces” definition.
Interestingly, the OED, in its etymological note for “mammock” as a noun, refers to the earlier English Dialect Dictionary, which, in addition to defining it as “a broken piece” or “a mess,” offers the definition “a scarecrow; a ‘guy’; an untidily or absurdly dressed person.” (The “guy” meant is an antiquated British term for a dummy or effigy, drawn from the name of Guy Fawkes, effigies of whom are still burned on Guy Fawkes Day. Google “gunpowder plot” for the details. And yes, that’s the same “guy” we use today to mean “fellow.”)
That leap from the “shred, small piece” sense of “mammock” to a meaning of “scarecrow, weird-looking person” is difficult to explain, but I have a theory. I suspect that “mammock” when used in the “scarecrow” sense is actually a completely different word, a variant of “mammet,” an archaic term for a dummy or puppet in use in the 15th century. “Mammet” is derived from the Old French “Mahomet,” a version of the name Mohammed, referring to the founder of Islam. Use of “mammet” in this sense, and earlier as a synonym for “idol,” was due to, as the OED puts it, “the common medieval Christian belief that the prophet Muhammad was worshiped as a god.” So the evolution of “mammet” would have been from “false god” to “idol” to “scarecrow, doll, puppet.” The term “mammet” is also still used in regional English dialects to mean both “baby or child” and “hateful person; weakling.”