• Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) the confusion caused by things being untidy, or not in their rightful place

There’s always comes point in tidying a room when you kinda wish you’d never started. Nothing is in its rightful place, everything looks worse than it did before, and you can’t find the thing you’re looking for as a result.

The next time that happens, though, thanks to the English Dialect Dictionary you can at least find some comfort in knowing that that state is called a huckmuck.

In the words of the EDD, a huckmuck is a “muddle”, or a “confusion caused by all things being out of place.” In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, however, a huckmuck is “a strainer used in brewing”, that “consists of a bundle of twigs, generally part of an old broom, placed at the bottom of the mashing-keeve or vat, to prevent the grains running out when the wort is drawn off.” Unless you’re tidying your mashing-keeve, methinks we might be dealing with two distinct words here.

Actually, as the OED points out, we’re probably dealing with quite a few. The dictionaries are chock-full of reduplicated “h–m–” words along these lines, and it’s difficult to know how (if at all) they relate to one another.

So as well as huckmuck, there’s hucker-mucker, meaning “disorderly,” or “inconvenient” according to the English Dialect Dictionary. To do something hugger-mugger is to do it secretly or clandestinely. To hudge-mudge is to have a whispered conversation. Hudder-mudder is privacy or concealment. To huddimuk is to do something slyly. Somewhere that is huggery-muggery is in a state of disorder. And the EDD explains that even huckmuck itself can be variously also used to mean “a dwarf”, “a misshapen woman,” “a mean, shuffling person”, “a little man covered with mud to the knees,” and (because apparently every dialect word has a secret double life in ornithology) a nickname for the long-tailed tit.

There’s at least a little overlap in the meanings of some of these words, and it’s not inconceivable to draw connections between words meaning ‘inconvenient’ and ‘annoyingly out of place’. So are these words connected, or is this all just one coincidence? To answer that, we need to head back in time.

The earliest of these words that we have a record of is hudder-mudder, which has been traced back to the mid 1400s. Its origins are a puzzle, certainly, but there was a verb in Middle English, mokeren, meaning ‘to hoard’ or ‘to heap together’ (while a mokerer was a miser or hoarder of money). The image of money being kept in secret is a tantalizing one, as it’s easy to see how it may have inspired a clutch of words denoting secrecy or privacy.

Backing up that theory, the OED also has a peculiar one-off entry for the word hodymoke, meaning ‘concealment’ (which appears to live on in that dialect word huddimuk, listed in the EDD). Precisely what that ‘hud’ or ‘hody’ part is here is another mystery, but there’s a good chance it’s related to hide:

Huyde hyt not in hodymoke, Lete other mo rede þys boke.
[Hide it not in hodymoke, let other people read this book.]
John Mirk, Instructions to Parish Priests (c. 1450)

What we now spell hide was “hyd” in Old English, pronounced with a vowel sound closer to that of the French word tu than the open diphthong it has today. En route from one pronunciation to another, hide took on all sorts of variations, so it’s more than possible that at some point in the vast Middle English melting pot it could have morphed into something approaching “hod” or “hud.”

So the likes of hodymoke, huddimuk and hucker-mucker might all be reflexes of a Middle English compound of ‘hide’ and ‘hoard’. So what does that have to do with things being thrown into disorder? And cleaning out a brewing vat?

Could it be that there’s an allusion here to someone looking for something hidden, and tossing things around untidily in an effort to locate some secret stash? Possibly. But the OED is more cautious, and in its entry to hugger-mugger says of this long list of seemingly related words that “it is not unlikely that they came from different sources, and influenced each other.” That would certainly explain how huckmuck apparently enjoys a second life as an ale strainer.

Long story short, then, perhaps what we have here is some Middle English compounding, morphed into improbable shapes in the dialects of southern England, then all simultaneously influencing one another to take on spellings and sounds ever more at odds to their initial form.

Confusing, right? Yes. If only we had a word for that.

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