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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(v.) to cheat, to make a fool of someone

The word sammyfoozle cropped up on the HH Twitter feed the other day:

...and with April Fool’s Day on its way, what better time to explain more about it?

Although it’s listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED actually only has one written record of sammyfoozling:

This speech was, I hardly need say, the brotherly effusion of the old sailor. “You have been sammyfoozled by a rascally swindler ... to be cheated this way, you must be a great deal younger than you look.”
Edward Howard, The Old Commodore (1837)

Edward Howard was a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy before embarking on a career as a writer and magazine editor, and his half-dozen novels drew heavily on his naval experiences. From that, we can deduce that sammyfoozling either originated in sailors’ slang and Howard simply reused the word in his book, or else he invented it himself as an example of a suitably evocative bit of naval jargon.

Either way, both halves of the word have appropriately foolish origins.

a small child in a dunce's cap

Firstly, the “sammy–” of sammyfoozle comes from the boys’ name Sam. Familiar names like Samuel, John and Thomas have for centuries been used as the basis of generic names and nicknames for all manner of creatures, characters and characteristics. So a Tom-noddy was once a puffin. A John-a-dreams is an absent-minded daydreamer. A dismal Jimmy is a gloomy, pessimistic person. And, in the early nineteenth century at least, a sammy, or a simply Sammy, was a fool or simpleton.

Foozle meanwhile has been used since the mid 1800s as a verb variously meaning “to waste your time”, or “to do something clumsily”. It’s origins are hazy, but it’s likely to be a distant cousin of the German dialect fuseln, meaning “to work hurriedly and poorly”, and perhaps even the German fusel, meaning “poor-quality alcohol”. Problematically, Howard’s use of sammyfoozle predates the earliest record of foozle (in Tom Brown’s School Days, 1857), but it’s possible that it was in use before then just without the written evidence to prove it.

Put those two elements together then and you’ll have sammyfoozle—a verb that, given the meanings of its constituent parts, could be taken as meaning “to make a fool of someone by getting them to do something ill-advised”. Whether the word’s origins lie in naval slang or in the fertile imagination of an ex-naval officer, however, it’s impossible to say.


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