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Widdiful

Pronounced /(ˈwɪdɪfʊl/Help with pronunciation

Somebody who was widdiful deserved to be hanged.

The story behind it starts with the northern English and Scottish word widdy or widdie, local forms of the standard English withy, a flexible branch from a tree such as willow used to make baskets or to tie or fasten things together. One sense was of a band or rope made of intertwined withies.

Later it came to mean a halter and in particular a hangman’s rope. To cheat the widdy meant to escape hanging. By an obvious transfer the sense of gallows-bird grew up, one destined to fill a widdy. This is a modern example:

”Will you shut the bloody noise off, you bloody widdiful!” Philips said in a shout that was nearly a scream.

The Reaches, by David Drake, 2003.

The word weakened in its later history in Scotland, turning into a joking term for somebody who was merely a scamp or scoundrel. It has been recorded in Yorkshire dialect in a very different sense, one derived from the idea of a withy being tough and durable:

WIDDIFUL, Industrious, laborious, plodding. It is applicable to a hard-working man, who never complains of fatigue, and is derived from widdy; of such a character it is often said, “he’s as tough as a widdy.”

The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York, by William Carr, 1828.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Dec. 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.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-wid1.htm
Last modified: 4 December 2010.