A person who is gorbellied is corpulent, with a protruding belly.
It seems probable that it derives from Old English gor or gore, meaning at first dung or dirt; in the sixteenth century it shifted sense to our modern one of blood that has been shed as a result of violence.
Gorbelly came along early in the sixteenth century, in a poem by John Skelton. The adjective followed soon after — Shakespeare used it in his Henry IV, Part One: “Hang ye, gorbellied knaves, are ye undone?” It dropped out of use in the nineteenth century, with one of the last users in a direct line from the ancients being Douglas Jerrold, who wrote “The gorbellied varlets, with mouths greasy with the goods of cheated worth.”
These days it appears only rarely, being a word resurrected to give a sense of another age in historical fiction or fantasy, as in Harry Turtledove’s alternate history, Ruled Britannia, in which the English failed to defeat the Armada in 1588 and in which the delightful scene-setting opening line is “Two Spanish soldiers swaggered up Tower Street toward William Shakespeare.” Turtledove writes later, “‘Consumption catch thee, thou gorbellied knave!’ a boatman yelled.”
To save anyone pointing it out, it’s also in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Search World Wide Words
Recently added pieces
Vape; Bridegroom; Lilly-low; The Language Myth by Vyvyan Evans; Boot and trunk; Zoilism; Fish-faced; Poach; Immensikoff; Habiliments; The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker; Agister; The Word at War; Not so green as you’re cabbage-looking; Peely-wally; Draw a line in the sand; Porphyrogeniture.
Support World Wide Words!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.
Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!