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I had some notion of writing about conundrum, a moderately odd-looking word whose origins are obscure. While looking into it, however, I consulted its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary — not updated since it was written in 1893 — which defines one of its senses as a “whim, crotchet, maggot or conceit”. Crotchet? Maggot?

It took merely a moment to bring onto my computer screen the OED’s recently revised entry for this last word. This noted that maggot, an insect larva, universally regarded as something undesirable or yucky, was applied from the seventeenth century to “parasitical people or pernicious influences” and to a “whimsical, eccentric, strange, or perverse notion or idea”.

The latter definition leads us back to conundrum, as does one sense of crotchet. We recognise this mainly for a note in music, which is itself a figurative extension of its original sense of a hook. It derives from French crochet, which is the same word as the handicraft that employs a hooked needle. Another figurative sense of crotchet grew up in the sixteenth century (quoting the OED again): “a whimsical fancy; a perverse conceit; a peculiar notion on some point (usually considered unimportant) held by an individual in opposition to common opinion.” Persons holding such eccentric views could be called crotchety, though that is more familiar these days as a way to say they’re irritable, though probably not because their crocheting is going badly.

Let us return to our maggots. The word is from the Old English mathe of Germanic origin, known in Scots and English dialects until recently in various spellings. This became maddock in middle English, for reasons not understood. By about 1500 that had been transformed into maggot through what grammarians describe as metathesis, in which sounds within a word are transposed (and in this case, subsequently modified). But the experts suggest that the shift might have been influenced by the pet name Magot, given to women called Margery or Margaret, which was also applied centuries ago as a nickname for magpies and sows. The views of the ladies so cognomened has not been recorded.

A musical association also exists. Some country dances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have it in their titles, usually linked to a person’s name, such as Mr Isaac’s Maggot, Huntington’s Maggot, Hill’s Maggot, Betty’s Maggot, and Mr Beveridge’s Maggot. Other figurative senses are still in active use. It’s a term of abuse in Ireland and elsewhere for an undesirable person — you may know it in that sense from the song Fairytale of New York by the Pogues. There’s also the Irish idiom acting the maggot, playing the fool.

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Page created 05 Jan 2013