Getting annoyed is a natural human emotion. Most of us encounter something irksome during the course of the day. So it is not surprising that there are many words and phrases available to describe our blood boiling. One of my favourites is in high dudgeon by which we mean having a feeling of anger, resentment or simmering outrage. There is an air of theatricality around its usage – people often storm out of rooms in high dudgeon.
Dudgeon is a curious word, not least because its ending –udgeon is a fairly uncommon one in the English language. The only other two I could bring to mind without causing my little grey cells irreparable damage were bludgeon and curmudgeon – a state to which I aspire and the only English word ending in –mudgeon. My researches also unearthed gudgeon, a small fish which is easily caught and by extension is used to describe someone who is gullible, the Scottish humdudgeon, used to describe an unnecessary cry or complaint or an imaginary illness, and trudgeon which is a variant of trudgen, a type of swimming stroke.
The other curious feature of our word is that its origin is far from certain. One theory is that it comes from the Welsh word, dygen, which means malice or resentment, a suggestion rather firmly scotched by the Oxford English Dictionary. It does not give any reason for this rejection and whilst there is a similarity in form, the meaning of the two words is some distance apart. Perhaps we should bow to the OED’s superior knowledge and decidedly anti-Celtic stance.
The next suggestion is that it comes from the Italian, aduggiare, meaning to overshadow, rather like the English word umbrage, which is also used to describe a temper tantrum. But there is no citation to move this on from pure speculation. Another, perhaps more hopeful, suggestion is that we look at the French word, indign, which spawned our indignant. The English are notorious for mangling foreign words and phrases and perhaps in dudgeon came from mangling en indign. Endugine does pop up once, in 1638, and the sense is the same but to build too much on this hapax legomenon may be dangerous. But it certainly intrigues me.
What is certain, though, is that dudgeon existed from around the 16th century and was used to describe the wood that made up the handle of a knife or a dagger. Shakespeare uses it in Macbeth to describe the hilt of the dagger; “I see thee still,/ and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood/ which was not so before.”
It is tempting to think that Shakespeare was at the cutting edge of all developments in the English language but in the usage of dudgeon he was pretty old school. Gabriel Harvey was a pre-eminent writer in the Elizabethan era and pretty disputatious too. In his Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, published in 1573, he provided the first example of dudgeon being used to describe temperament; “who seem’d to take it in marvelus great duggin.”
It was Samuel Butler, the 17th century poet not to be confused with the 19th century novelist, who first linked the adjective high to dudgeon in his mock heroic poem, Hudibras, published in 1663; “when civil dudgeon first grew high/ and men fell out they knew not why..” There’s no point in being in low dudgeon, I suppose. And in 1885 we see its modern-day usage, the Manchester Examiner reporting; “[He] resigned his position as reporter of the Committee in high dudgeon.”
Whilst it is tempting to see the figurative grasping of the handle of a dagger as illustrative of a temper, I rather like the idea that dudgeon comes from the mangling of a French word. My only hesitation is that the singular appearance of endugine comes sixty years after Harvey’s use of dudgeon.