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A recent article about Mark Haddon, who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, reminded me of this pejorative term:

Haddon is sometimes described as a crosspatch. “Our defining connection was that we were both grumpy men in our 40s with children. We’d sit down over lunch, grumbling about how indie music wasn’t as good as when we were teens,”

The Guardian, 4 May 2013.

A grumpy grumbler — that’s a crosspatch to a T.

It’s from the seventeenth century, now remembered much more in the UK than in other English-speaking countries, though even here it has lost its one-time colloquial force to become rather literary. We don’t need to spend time on its first element, an obvious synonym for bad-tempered, but the second may mislead us. This patch isn’t a piece of cloth for mending or some small area of ground. It’s a fool, simpleton or clown.

The story is that the original Patch was a real clown or fool named Sexten, who was employed by Cardinal Wolsey. When Wolsey fell out of favour with Henry VIII, he gave him Sexten along with Hampton Court in an attempt to restore himself to the king’s good books (it didn’t work). We know very little about Sexten, not even his first name, but a letter from Thomas Bedyll to Thomas Cromwell in 1535 mentioned that Sexten, then working for the king, was “an old fool” and it was time to search out a replacement. People have tried to fit the cloth sense of patch to Sexten’s nickname by saying that he wore patched clothes, a form of motley. It’s much more likely that his name came from the Italian pazzo, a fool or madman. A little later, patch became a generic term for a clownish individual, used by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “A crew of patches, rude Mechanicals”.

Crosspatch, as an elaboration of patch, turns up first in a work of 1699, A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, that is, the slang or jargon of beggars, thieves and other ne’er-do-wells. It’s another of our odd gender-bending terms — unlike patch it was then and for a century after applied mainly to women. It was Sir Walter Scott who began to use it of men.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 15 Jun. 2013

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 15 June 2013.