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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Frobly-mobly

frobly-mobly (adj.) neither well nor unwell; just okay [17C]

Yesterday’s Word of the Day over on Haggard Hawks proved very popular, so here’s a bit more about frobly-mobly.



As an 1839 Glossary of Provincial and Local Words put it, to be frobly-mobly is to be merely “indifferently well”—that is, neither well nor unwell, or neither good nor bad. Its origins are unclear, but a truncated spelling recorded by some earlier dictionaries in the nineteenth century—namely, fobly-mobly, without that extra R—might suggest that there’s some kind of distant etymological connection here to foible, meaning “a niggling flaw or problem.” (Foible itself, incidentally, was borrowed into English from French in the mid 1600s, and originally referred to a point of weakness in the blade of a sword.)


One thing that we can say with some certainly, however, is that frobly-mobly is by no means alone. Words comprised of a pair rhyming halves like this are properly known as reduplications, or “ricochet” words, and their rhythmic half-and-half construction seems to be well suited to capturing the feeling of being neither one thing nor the other.


So as well as feeling frobly-mobly, you might be atweesh-and-atween (“indifferently well”), crawly-mawly (“ailing”), deetle-dottle (“muddled in the mind”), or parry-marry (“weak, worthless”; “insipid, flavourless”). Perhaps you’re suffering a bout of the screwton-newtons, a Warwickshire dialect word for “a miserable feeling in body and mind”, or are in your mubble-fubbles (a sixteenth century name for general low spirits).


You could also feel huten-truten (“ill-tempered, sulky”), fechie-leghie (“insipid, inactive”), or hingum-tringum—a word variously defined by the Scottish National Dictionary as “in low spirits”, “barely presentable”, or “just hanging together”. And we’ve all been there.

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