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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) someone who always seems to act contrary to the most sensible or expected course of action

A black knight chess piece among white chess pieces

The great thing about researching the words for HH is that every so often some obscure word (which no one has seemingly seen or used for a century or two) rears its head in some obscure dictionary (which no one has seemingly read or opened for a century or two) which neatly fills a gap in your vocabulary. And this week, that word was byspelt.

As we put it on Twitter, a byspelt is someone who always seems to act contrary to the most sensible course of action:

Someone who can’t do right for doing wrong, then, or a noticeable odd one out. That term, and indeed that definition, comes from a superb Glossary of North Country Words published in 1829—which also gave this more detailed account, as well as a tantalizing hint towards the word’s origins:

BYSPELT, a strange awkward figure, or a mischievous person; acting contrary to reason, or propriety; as if labouring under the influence of a spell.

A second etymological explanation—namely that this word represents the German bei spiel, “at play”—seems less likely by comparison. Especially given that, hidden away in another dictionary of English regionalisms, there’s also this:

BYSPEL, BYSPELL. One who has become a byword for any remarkable quality.

That’s an entry from the first volume of the English Dialect Dictionary (1898). The meaning isn’t quite the same as that found in the North Country Words, but there is a connection here: spell.

As the OED points out, the word spell didn’t always mean “an incantation.” Back in Old English, spell could also be used of any meaningful collection of words, including a tale, a story, or a narration, or any similar composition.

Based on that, the word bispel established itself in the Middle English period as another word for a parable, and later as a proverb, and from there the word came to be used of anyone who—either through their actions or behaviour—established themselves as a proverbial comparison.

So whether you’re a go-to proverbial reference because your behaviour is so bizarre, or your behaviour is so bizarre it makes you appear to be operating under the influence of magic, there’s a word for you.


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