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Garboil

Pronounced /ˈɡɑːbɔɪl/Help with pronunciation

In origin, this archaic word is linked to the heating water sense of boil rather than the bodily excrescence one. But the link is puzzling in one way because etymologists are still unsure what the gar- bit means or where it came from.

It’s ancient but according to the records it died out in British English dialect about a century ago. When it was around it meant a brawl, hubbub, hurly-burly or similar confused and noisy situation. It has been used by modern writers seeking a period flavour:

Then in ’82 there had been the Egyptian garboil I mentioned a moment ago.

Flashman and the Tiger, by George MacDonald Fraser, 1999. As the story is set in the nineteenth century, Harry Flashman means 1882, of course, the year of the Second Anglo-Egyptian War.

Once you know the origin, the idea of a confrontation that boils into a tumult or fracas is easy enough to understand. Its etymology confirms that that’s where the word comes from. It has been traced back through the Old French garbouille to Italian garbuglio, which in turn is from Latin bullire, to boil.

The compound disgarboil once existed, meaning “disembowel”. It is long defunct — the Oxford English Dictionary has examples only from the sixteenth century. The meaning may well have been the result of a confusion with another ancient word, disgarbage, because the original sense of garbage was animal offal, often discarded as rubbish.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 9 Oct. 2010

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gar4.htm
Last modified: 9 October 2010.