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The amorous and other adventures of “poor pilgarlic”

The word pilgarlic (or pilgarlik and pilgarlick) may not be worthy of a post, but a hundred and fifty years ago and some time later, people discussed it with great interest and dug up so many curious examples of its use that only the OED has more. (Just how many citations the archive of the OED contains we have no way of knowing, for the printed text includes only a small portion of the examples James A. H. Murray and his successors received.) There is not much to add to what is known about the origin of this odd word, but I have my own etymology of the curious word and am eager to publicize it. Besides, one of my sources is an article in Boston Evening Transcript for 1883, and I suspect that the back numbers of this illustrious newspaper (it stopped existing in 1941) are not everybody’s most common reading. So why keep something so useful under the bushel?

Dictionaries agree that pilgarlic (very often with the epithet poor appended to it) means “wretch.”  Todd’s Johnson says: “A poor forsaken wretch,” thus emphasizing the person’s isolation. Also, pilgarlic is (or was) a facetious, half-contemptuous designation of a bald-headed man, with reference to peeled garlic. The confusion of the so-called short and long [i] in English dialects is an old phenomenon. For instance, Jacob “set the rods which he had pilled [= peeled] before the flocks….” Shakespeare punned on ship ~ sheep. George Eliot devoted a passage on the ship-sheep confusion in her Middlemarch. The verb peel is an early borrowing from Latin, and, since pill is a variant of it, pilgarlic looks like a legitimate variant of peelgarlic. But what stands behind this exotic metaphor?

Not Dickens’s lone, lorn creetur, but certainly a poor pilgarlic. Image credit: Old Woman Human Person Invalid Stroke Disease by lagrafika. CC0 via Pixabay.

The word must have been “low” at all times. The peak of its popularity falls on the seventeenth century. The OED refers to the word’s use in dialects, and correspondents to the early Notes and Queries, that is, to the time long before the appearance of Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, confirmed this fact. Here are two quotations dating to 1883 (not from the Boston Evening Transcript!): “In Staffordshire [the word]  was used some sixty years ago by old people to describe some one, frequently themselves, on whom some unfortunate responsibility had fallen, in which they were likely to be the scapegoat, or ‘poor Pill Garlick,’ as they put it.” (Staffordshire is a county in the West Midlands.) And: “The word is by no means out of use to describe people of the Mrs. Gummidge type.” Mrs. Gummidge, it will be remembered, was a widow, living in Mr. Peggoty’s house (David Copperfield) who constantly thought of her “old ‘un” and began every statement with: “I am a lone, lorn creetur’.”

In our earliest sources, pilgarlic was associated with syphilis, though one finds only an obscure reference to “a venereal disease.” However, later, when even such hints could not be mentioned in print, those who wrote about pilgarlic stressed the connection between isolation ( or being “forsaken”) and leprosy, as it was treated in the Middle Ages and beyond. However, baldness is not one of the symptoms of this disease. By contrast, syphilis is often accompanied by hair loss, though among the many visible marks of syphilis baldness is certainly not the most prominent one. The path from either disease to baldness remains unclear.

Leprosy, which today is fully curable, was the most feared disease in the Middle Ages. Image credit: Omne Bonum by James le Palmer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that garlic produces an offensive smell from the mouth and thus makes the person an “outcast” needs no proof. “The term pil-garlick (sic), as we now hear it occasionally used in conversation [1859!], has this peculiarity, that it not only signifies, in a general sense, one who has suffered ill-treatment, but, specifically, one has been abandoned by others, and left in the lurch…. Garlick of necessity isolates. The Greeks forbad those who had eaten garlick to enter their temples. But, connected with our mediæval therapeutics, there was a peculiar case, in which those who had to do with garlick were placed in a state of isolation.” This case is said to be leprosy. In conclusion: A bald head resembles a head of peeled garlic, garlic isolates, and so do leprosy and, presumably, syphilis; ergo: a bald-headed man, forsaken by society, is called a pilgarlic. I am not sure that this reasoning deserves the name of a syllogism.

One can find another approach to the word. Hensleigh Wedgwood, the main etymologist of the pre-Skeat era, wrote in his etymological dictionary that a pilgarlic is someone who peels garlic for others to eat, who is made to endure hardships of ill-usage while others are enjoying themselves. I know nothing about the profession of garlic-peelers (I had enough trouble with mad hatters: see the posts for 24 January and 31 January 2018). In any case, pilgarlic emerged from Wedgwood’s definition as some sort of metaphor. Thus (such is my inference) could we call someone who pulls chestnuts out of the fire a chestnut. Perhaps so, but what about the earliest reference to syphilis, and why baldness? According to a similar approach: “Pillgarlic was undoubtedly a name applied to the scullion in ancient kitchens, to whom was assigned the lowest service—of peeling or skinning the onions or garlic….” (1883). No one who proposes an etymology containing the word undoubtedly should be taken seriously.  If the writer had any evidence, he would have presented it. And again: what about baldness and syphilis?

Chaucer’s Pardoner still in full glory. Image credit: The Pardoner in the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Anonymous. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some light on our word or phrase may come from the old allusion to pulling (not peelling) garlic. I am not sure my fantasy is worth anything, but here it is. In the old discussion about the origin of pilgarlic, the Pardoner’s plight was of course noticed. When Chaucer’s pilgrims arrived in Canterbury, the Pardoner made an appointment with the Tapster. He gave her money to buy a good supper, but on his return he found that his place was occupied by another man, who ate his goose, drank his wine, and beat him with his own staff, while he spent the night under the stairs in fear of the dog. “And ye shall hear the tapster made the Pardoner pull/ Garlick all the long night till it was near end day.” The author of a note in Notes and Queries (2/VIII, 1859: 229) wrote: “The derivation of this term seems one of those that is impossible to guess at. The way in which Chaucer speaks of pulling garlick evidently points to some popular anecdote which gave meaning to the phrase.”

I have made a most perfunctory search of annotated editions of Chaucer’s poem and found nothing like what I am going to propose. Some Chaucer specialist who may read this post will be able to refute or support my idea. I believe the idiom is incredibly obscene: to pull garlic must have meant “to masturbate” (in this case, the reference is of course to a cheated, “forsaken” man).  It sounds like our spank the monkey, flog the dolphin, and choke the chicken. I’ll leave it to our readers to guess which part of the Pardoner’s exposed anatomy looked like a clove of garlic and a bald head (modern wits call it a bulb or mushroom tip, among dozens of others). And, to be sure, pulling and peeling garlic was never thought to be a pleasant occupation. The rest of my reconstruction is much less secure. There might have been a near-synonym for pull garlic, namely pill ~ peel garlic. Perhaps a hapless lover ousted by a rival or someone who contracted a venereal disease was called pullgarlic and pil(l)garlic(k), but only the second word has survived. Then baldness came to the front, though being forsaken did not go away. References to leprosy have no support in the evidence, while only one short step separates “a man who contracted the pox” from “an unsuccessful lover” and “a solitary person in misery.”

Featured Image: Garlic pulled and pilled. Featured Image Credit: “Garlic Flavoring Food Seasoning Condiment Pungent” by stevepb. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Though a use beyond Chaucer might help, it can be conceded that after failing to dine with the buxom tapster, pulling garlic all night would not likely be usual agricultural practice.
    For what it may be worth, if anything, Bill Nye wrote a story of a poor orphan boy who lived by the Pulgarlic River (also 1883!–what was the Boston date?)

  2. Juan Kerr

    I don’t know which unmentioned person finds the idiom “incredibly obscene”. Not Chaucer, who used it. Not I, who read it. Surely not Anatoly Liberman? Only people (past or present) who think it incredibly obscene will find it incredibly obscene.

  3. Gavin Wraith

    You do not mention the modern word pillock. I always presumed this was from pilgarlic, but I see people prefer pillicock as its forebear. It is a word which so nicely describes so many of our politicians in the UK, especially in the phrase “a right pillock”, that it would be a shame if your readers in the USA were not reminded of it.

  4. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    You leave me speechless!


  5. Rudy Troike


    A colleague of mine, a specialist in Middle English, sent me the following note:

    The quoted line is not from Chaucer but from the anonymous “Prologue to the Tale of Beryn”, probably a fifteenth-century continuation of the CT. The MED dates the manuscript to c1460 and the composition to ?c1400, that is, up to twenty-five years either side of the years assigned. The question mark indicates uncertainty about the date of composition. In this instance, I’d guess it means that the composition may be post-1425.

    Here is the full sentence, taken from https://chaucer.fas.harvard.edu/pages/prologue-tale-beryn. The round brackets are in the digital text, and the gloss for “pull / Garlik” is “peel garlic = made a fool of”.

    (Thoughe it be no grete holines to prech this ilk matere,
    And that som list not to her it; yet, sirs, ner the latter
    Endurith for a while, and sufrith hem that woll,
    And ye shull here how the Tapster made the Pardoner pull
    Garlik al the longe nighte, til it was nere end day;
    For the more cher she made of love, the falser was hir lay;
    But litle charge gaf she therof, thoughe she aquit his while,
    For eitheres thought and tent was, other to begile,
    As ye shull here herafter, when time comith and space
    To meve such mater, but nowe a litle space
    I woll retourne me agein unto the company.)


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