Few people would today have remembered the word bodkin if it had not occurred in the most famous of Hamlet’s monologues. Chaucer was the earliest author in whose works bodkin occurred. At its appearance, it had three syllables and a diphthong in the root, for it was spelled boidekin. The suffix –kin suggested to John Minsheu, our first English etymologist (1617), that he was dealing with a Dutch noun. He had good reason for his conjecture. For example, such English family names as Watkins (Watkin, that is, “little Wat” or “little Walter”) and Jenkins testify to their origin from the Low Countries (compare also lambkin, etc.). Stephen Skinner (1671) did not support Minsheu and etymologized bodkin as “little body” (a native English word). To be sure, a Dutch suffix doesn’t prove that the entire word is Dutch. In fulfillment (to give a random example), the suffix is French, but the root is English. Words of this type are many (see also the end of the present post). Therefore, Skinner’s suggestion (people cited it as late as 1898) was not absurd, except that the noun body never had the form boyde and that a bodkin is not a body at all. Ultimately, the Celtic hypothesis won the day. The attempt to explain bodkin as “biter” (its originator was Eduard Mueller) had no success, but a somewhat similar conjecture appeared in Skeat.
The form nearest to Chaucer’s is Scottish Gaelic biodag. The lending language cannot be ascertained, for it is not excluded that biodag was borrowed by Scots from Middle English. But even if biodag is native in Gaelic, its etymology in that language remains obscure. Therefore, since one opaque word cannot shed light on another word whose origin is also unknown, formulations in our dictionaries need refinement, and it is curious to observe the editors’ efforts to say something but, if possible, not too much. Noah Webster derived bodkin from Irish; his editor Mahn (1864) replaced Irish with Welsh. At that time, the fear of making a mistake had not yet taken hold of etymological lexicographers, but, when, in the twentieth century, Webster’s International came into being (there are three editions of it), people became very careful. In the first edition, we find “? Welsh”, in the second, “of uncertain origin”, and in the third only the Middle English form is given. Modern entries have become unassailable but uninspiring.
The inspiration for part of what follows comes from a 1932 article by Paul Barbier, an excellent word historian. He cited Middle Engl. bidowe, which occurred only once in 1362 and which seems to mean “dagger.” This is the only example of this obscure noun in the OED. Barbier set out to show that a multitude of French words could be traced to the Basque root bide “road.” I will refrain from following him into the territory alien to me and only say that Middle Engl. bidowe, though an isolated word in Langland’s Pier Plowman, probably does mean “dagger” and that it bears a slight resemblance to Engl. bodkin, which Barbier did not mention. Be that as it may, one wonders whether bodkin could have reached English from Old French. Skeat suggested this route as a distant possibility. In the first edition of his dictionary, he derived bodkin straight from Celtic, but in the fourth he cited Anglo-French beitequin, from MDu beytelkin “a small beetle” and supported his guess by referring to Du. beitel “chisel.” This derivation reminds us of Mueller’s beater. The only scholar who to a certain extent trod the same way was Weekley. He thought of some word like Anglo-French boitequin “little box” (a word not recorded in texts): first a sheath for the weapon, then the weapon kept in it, as happened in the history of tweezers and a few other Romance words. Since boitequin was reconstructed only to explain the origin of bodkin, this etymology does not go too far.
The origin of bodkin would have been rather clear but for an alternation of vowels in the first syllable; we cannot decide whether the sought-for ancient form had a, o, i, oi, io, or something else. Consequently, no conclusion will be fully satisfactory. Neither o could “develop” into oi ~ io, nor oi ~ io could “become” o. A broad look at the linguistic map shows that bod-kin resembles not only some Celtic forms. This fact was brought into prominence by Hensleigh Wedgwood, who in his usual cavalier way strung together words from different languages and called this medley an etymology. However, we should not miss his mention of Slavic bodati “to butt” (Russian bodat’ “butt with the horns”) and French bouter “hunt, pursue,” alongside Gaelic biodag. I am surprised that he missed the Germanic family of Engl. beat and French battre “beat; batter.” It is curious to observe how often European b-d ~ b-t words denote striking, butting, and the like. Possibly from the idea of beating and striking Old English had beadu “battle,” which I discussed in connection with the English adjective bad. Beadu had an exact parallel in Old Icelandic böð (ð was pronounced as th in Engl. the). Male names tell the same story; in addition to Old Irish bodb ~ badb “raven” (a bird of battle) and “warrior maiden”, we find Celtic Boduos, Gothic Baduarius, and Icelandic Böðvar(r). In Slavic, nouns denoting “dagger; thorn, etc.” have been derived from bod– with the help of various suffixes.
It seems that a common European base b-d existed from which the names of daggers were formed. Bodkin may be independent of biodag and bidowe but related to them in the most general sense of the term “relationship.” The syllable kin need not even be a suffix; it may have come from some French word (perhaps but not certainly of Dutch origin). Compare mannequin, which traveled from Dutch to French and returned to English in its French guise as a doublet of manikin (from Dutch manneken “little man”). A borrowing (a migratory word) in practically every language, the name of a dagger would naturally have acquired dissimilar forms (with oi, i, o, and so forth). In the series on bad, I suggested that Engl. bad came into being as a baby word, a sound symbolic formation coined to frighten children. The b-d military terms whose existence I dared reconstruct here are related to bad (if at all) in the vaguest sense possible. In the world of symbolic and sound-imitating formations, affinity is an almost meaningless concept. Thus, Old Engl. beadu is not a derivative of bad. The reason for the attraction of the b-d group remains a moot point.
It remains for me to say that not long ago the phrase to ride bodkin existed in English. At bodkin the OED gives the sense “a person wedged in between two others where there is proper room for only two.” In Lincolnshire, bodkin was used for a team of three horses, yoked two abreast behind, and one in front. An unexpected definition of bodkin occurs in Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (1859): “Amongst sporting men, applied to a person who takes his turn between the sheets on alternate nights, when the hotel has twice as many visitors as it can comfortably lodge; as, for instance, during a race week.” Apparently, not every bodkin has to be completely bare.
Image credits: (1) Moose sparing. (c) RONSAN4D via iStock. (2) Post Medieval silver bodkin fragment. 2002T293, Abbots Barton, Hampshire. Photo by Portable Antiquities Scheme from London, England. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.