To someone coming unawares upon this word, it might seem to have a connection to that fabulous beast called the griffin or gryphon, the one with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Or might it perhaps refer to the vulture with that cognomen or breeds of dog similarly named, both of which derive from an older English spelling of griffin? Alas, no. It’s more prosaic than that.
Readers with knowledge of French will be at an advantage, since the word appears in that language, as griffonnage, a noun that is formed from the verb griffonner, to scribble or scrawl. A griffonage is therefore an illegible scrawl.
The verb is recorded in French from the sixteenth century, but it arrived in English only in the early years of the nineteenth, clearly as a direct borrowing. This is an early, and rare, example:
We hastened to pack up our “trumpery,” as Captain Mirven unkindly calls the paraphernalia of the ladies, and among the rest, my six hundred pages of griffonage. There is enough of it, yet I must add a few more lines.
Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Frances Trollope, 1832. Her book generated a furore on both sides of the Atlantic, since she found Americans to be lacking in the finer qualities (“I do not like them. I do not like their principles, I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.”) Among her failed ventures while in the US was the Cincinnati Bazaar, which some argue was the first shopping mall. Frances Trollope’s son was the novelist Anthony Trollope.
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