We deal in obscure words every day here at Haggard Hawks, but sometimes something really—seriously—weird comes along. Case in point, pimpompet: a game in which three players try to kick each other on the backside.
Although we called that a “seventeenth century game” on Twitter, admittedly that’s only the date at which this word was first recorded in English. In truth, there’s little proof that anyone ever actually played it, nor that the word pimpompet was ever much employed in English at all. In fact, English speakers took it upon themselves to invent their own name for this game—all of which perhaps needs a little explaining.
So. The history of this word lies with the endlessly inventive and endlessly weird mind of the French writer Rabelais, whose bawdy and nonsensical Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel—published in five parts, between 1532 and 1564—includes among its innumerable chapters a list of games the eponymous giant Gargantua supposedly enjoyed playing. And listed among them, is a game Rabelais called pimpompet.
No rules, no description, and no origin of the game are offered by Rabelais—and, admittedly, that would largely be the end of the story here, were it not for a groundbreaking English lexicographer named Randle Cotgrave.
In 1611, Cotgrave published a landmark bilingual Dictionary of the French and English Tongues. And it’s from his dictionary that we took the definition we posted to Twitter: pimpompet, Cotgrave explains, is “a kind of game, wherein three hit each other on the bumme with one of their feet.”
So we now know what pimpompet was, at least, but besides that—well, not that much else. Etymologically, perhaps this name is meant to be onomatopoeic? Perhaps it is imitative of the sound of—er, three people’s backsides being struck? Perhaps the game was never really a game at all, and merely a product of Rabelais’ fertile imagination? But if that’s the case, how would Cotgrave know what the game actually entailed? After all, there’s no earlier record of the word in the language besides him—and , for that matter, nor is there much of a record of it after him.
Rabelais’ works were not translated into English until the mid seventeenth century, whereupon the Scottish aristocrat translator Sir Thomas Urquhart took it upon himself to translate three immense volumes of his work. The first two of these volumes appeared in 1653 (with the third not arriving until another 40 years later), and in it, Urquhart decided not to use Rabelais’ name pimpompet himself, but instead offered his own English version: bumdockdousse.
Bum means ‘backside’, of course. Dock is an animal’s (or, in this instance, a person’s figurative) tail. And dousse, or douse, is an old word meaning ‘to strike’. Slam those three elements together, and you’ve got Urquhart’s fairly imaginative English translation of Rabelais’ ass-kicking pimpompet.
Was the game ever actually played? Who knows. Frankly, who would want to know? And, for that matter, who would ever want to play it? Regardless of all those question marks, though, both those words—pimpompet, and Urquhart’s projected English version, bumdockdousse—now sit placidly in the dictionary, and occupy what must surely be some of the most peculiar places in our vocabulary.