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Pronounced /ɡælɪˈmɔːfrɪ/Help with IPA

This word has been around since the sixteenth century and is still in use. My publishers borrowed it as the title of a book of essays on words that I wrote some years ago. Since it means a hotchpotch, jumble or confused medley, I’ve never been entirely sure my editor wasn’t making a quiet joke at my expense.

It remains a useful word for the more literate among us:

Chosen not by a standing panel of intellectuals, as most of the world’s great literary prizes are, but by a random gallimaufry of well-meaning middle-class famous names, the Booker is far more likely to side with vacuous and transient novelty and tickle the soft underbelly of passing fashion than make any sort of effort to record genuine literary achievement.

The Times, 3 Sep. 2011.

It comes from the archaic French galimafrée, of unknown origin, which might have referred to a kind of sauce or stew. Support for this comes from its earliest sense in English of a ragout or mishmash of ingredients, “a dish made by hashing up odds and ends of food”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. By the time this definition appeared, it seems to have gone even further downhill:

Gallimaufry, A kind of stew, made up of scraps of various kinds. Sea term, and probably meaning the galley scraps.

The Slang Dictionary, by John Camden Hotten, 1873. Mr Hotten founded the London publishing firm later known as Chatto & Windus.

The figurative meaning, now the only one in use, is obviously derived from the cookery sense. It’s as old as the literal one: “So now,” Edmund Spencer lamented in 1579, “they have made our English tongue a gallimaufry, or hodgepodge of all other speeches”.

Page created 20 Jun. 1998
Last updated 3 Dec. 2011

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 3 December 2011.