Ontext Grammar Police – vocabulary lesson


A vocabulary interlude today from the Grammar Police. My husband and Yosemite Sam, of Warner yosemite-grammer-policeBros. cartoon fame, expostulate frequently with a word I adore. “Ah been, I say, Ah been hornswoggled!”

Yosemite Sam used the expletive when dealing with Bugs Bunny’s con-rabbit ways. My husband, Dan, uses it when my daughter and I nudge him into doing something and then make him think it was his idea. Like when we got our puppy, Ernie.

Dan disliked house dogs. We conned him. Outright. Now, eight years later, Ernie is, hands down, Dan’s dog. That is hornswoggling, to my mind. And it was Ernie who did the biggest swoggle, making Dan fall in love with him.

Where the heck did the word come from?

Peter Watts, author of A Dictionary of the Old West, believes it relates to a steer, lassooed around the neck. the beast bucks, twists and tries to disengage the rope. If cowboy Pete lets the steer succeed,  Pete’s been hornswoggled.


Merriam-Webster reports the etymology at circa 1829, origin unknown.

Bartleby’s says:

“We do not know the origin of hornswoggle. We do know that it belongs to a group of “fancified” words that were particularly popular in the American West in the 19th century. Hornswoggle is one of the earliest, first appearing around 1829. It is possible that these words were invented to poke fun at the more “sophisticated” East. Some other words of this ilk are absquatulate, also first appearing in the 1820s, skedaddle, first attested in 1861 in Missouri, and discombobulate, first recorded in 1916.”

I can’t clear up the mystery, but I can tell you, hornswoggle is a transitive verb. It isn’t a noun, as in “that was pure hornswoggle.”

It’s a very cool word – full of energy and nicely evocative. Try it out. People will look at you in a different way.

Got a favorite vocabulary word? Tell us!

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