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Pronounced /ˈkɑː(r)wɪtʃɪt)/Help with pronunciation

This word for a pun, a hoaxing question or a conundrum pops up first in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fayre of 1614 and appears a few times afterwards, but is effectively extinct by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Notwithstanding the advantage which this age claims over the last we find Mr. Dryden himself, as well as Mr. Jonson, not only given to Clinches, but sometimes a Carwichet, a Quarter-quibble, or a bare Pun.

London Magazine, August 1824. The writer is paraphrasing a line in John Dryden’s comedy The Wild Gallant of 1662 in which these forms are given as examples of dubious wit. A clinch was a type of sharp repartee or word-play; a quarter-quibble was a poor or weak quibble, a quibble at the time being a pun or a play on words. Dryden’s use of pun was among the earliest in the language.

The origin of carwichet is obscure, though it has been suggested that it comes from colifichet, a French word of the time for a fantastic small object of no great value, but which now means any knick-knack or trinket (it’s said to be from the older French word coeffichier, an ornament that was fixed to one’s hat).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Mar. 2009

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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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Last modified: 14 March 2009.