Raking through dunghill and rehabilitating the dunghill duck: October 2018 update

Raking through dunghill and rehabilitating the dunghill duck: October 2018 update

When revising the text of OED for its third edition, it is hard as an editor not to be amazed by the achievements of one’s predecessors. In compiling the first edition (A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, or NED) and the supplementary volumes published in the course of the twentieth century, editors and their assistants relied on the typically patchy and historically limited coverage of existing dictionaries, and, primarily, on the slips of paper showing written usage submitted by an army of volunteer readers. What is astonishing is how complete was the picture of each word’s history that they were able to offer; despite having no access at all to searchable databases of printed texts or to electronic, tagged corpora of large samples of English in use, NED entries very frequently present a more-or-less complete inventory of the main senses and subsenses of a word from its origins to the time at which the entry was being compiled.

Dunghill: a vital resource with unpleasant associations

This was largely the case with dunghill, part of a series of dung- words redolent of a lost world reliant on horsepower and the fertilizing power of any organic refuse (including both animal and human excrement) that could be rotted down into manure for fields and gardens. The central importance, ubiquity, and…well, pungency, of heaps of dung and other assorted muck in all contexts—agricultural, domestic, and urban—in previous centuries has made for a word rich in extended, allusive, and proverbial use. Almost the full range of these extended applications had been captured by the ‘sweep net’ which the architects of NED hoped to pass ‘over the whole surface of English literature’; the scarcity of the evidence available to the editor and assistants in putting together the entry led to the grouping of quotations under single senses covering two or three strands of use which can now be confidently identified as distinctive and well-enough attested to warrant separate treatment, but very little in the way of entirely new senses needed to be added.

As might be expected, almost all of these extended uses tend to be strongly negative, if not downright pejorative, with some of the earliest developments including senses defined as ‘a collection…of worthless, foul, or contemptible things…. the temporal world or the human body regarded as corrupt, depraved, or subject to change or decay’, ‘a person likened to a dunghill in being filthy or disgusting in some way’, and ‘designating a god or idol regarded as false, detestable, or abominable’.

Cockpit phraseology and the whiff of the farmyard

Several of NED’s senses refer to one specific extended use in particular: that illustrating the connection made in cockfighting circles between a purebred fighting or ‘game’ bird and an ordinary domestic fowl, which was known as a ‘dunghill cock’, or simply a ‘dunghill’. This sense can still be seen in common use in parts of the world where cockfighting remains a popular sport, and our updated entry includes a 2017 quotation taken from a forum post from a Filipino cockfighting website warning of the foolishness of mating a game cock with a dunghill hen. One of the main senses of the unrevised entry showed further extension of this sense to include people regarded as cowardly or lacking spirit, and the phrase to die dunghill, used in criminal slang of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to describe a condemned man who showed fear or repentance on the gallows, as opposed to those who met their death with defiance or resolution by dying game.

Elsewhere in the entry, a reader confronted with NED’s earliest evidence for dunghill used as a modifier in compounds might be forgiven for assuming that the dunghill duck mentioned in John Lydgate’s fifteenth-century poem Churl and Bird was simply earlier evidence for the sense ‘cowardly, or showing no fight’, seen later in cockfighting contexts, or that it represented another strand of sense, ‘fit for or vile as a dunghill’:

All oon to the a facoun & a kite

As good an owle as a Popyngay

A dongle doke as deynte as a snyte.

[All are the same to you, falcon and kite; an owl is as good as a parrot, a dunghill duck as dainty as a snipe.]

Were medieval ducks notoriously faint-hearted? Or was it that, given the contrast with what a later writer called the ‘palate pleasing snipe’, the duck in question was regarded as poor eating, and fit only—at least in comparison with more delicately flavoured game birds—to be tossed on the dunghill?

In fact, an important and rather more neutral sense than either of these possibilities is in play. Middle English and early modern evidence shows that the first compounds formed on dunghill are those in which the word designates an ordinary domestic animal or bird, such as one might have found in the vicinity of a domestic or farmyard dunghill.

The Middle English Dictionary has provided us with another, earlier example of this strand of sense which is more distinctly separated from the later cockfighting evidence, and other references to domestic poultry. In a list of the different kinds of domesticated dog in a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript in the College of Arms in London, we are told that:

There beth grehowndys‥, mene Mastewys,‥spaynelle[s]‥and terrourys, bocher hondis and dongehylle curres, and smale poupes ffor lady chambers.

[There are greyhounds, medium-sized mastiffs, spaniels and terriers, butchers’ hounds, and dunghill curs, and small pups for ladies’ chambers.]

Although cur in Modern English is normally pejorative, whether applied to a dog or a person, in Middle English it had a much wider range of meanings, some entirely neutral—this is probably a reference to a farmyard watchdog. While for NED’s editors the use of dunghill in this sense meaning ‘common, barnyard, not thoroughbred’ was most visible in reference to ordinary chickens in its specialized use in cockfighting parlance, this contrast was a later development and restriction of earlier, more general use.

Low-born knaves and base behaviour

A parallel sense referring to people, in which the common dunghill is seen as the haunt of the destitute or those from the lowest echelons of society, is recorded from the first half of the sixteenth century onwards, when John Rogers’ English version of the Bible (published as the work of ‘Thomas Matthew’) rendered 1 Samuel 2:8 as ‘He reyseth vp the poore out of the dust, and lyfteth vp the begger from the dong hill: to sett them among princes,’ and Edward Hall described the humbly born pretender to the throne Lambert Simnel as ‘A dongehyll knaue and vyle borne villeyne,’ in his Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke. Corpus analysis of the texts available through Early English Books Online (EEBO) makes the importance of this sense in the early modern period all too clear: beggar and peasant are among the most salient collocates recorded for the word, along with cock and god.

This is the sense in which Shakespeare’s characters use the word as a contemptuous form of address in both King Lear and King John (‘out, dunghill!’) and adjectivally, as when the Duke of Gloucester expresses his frustration at being ‘flouted..by dunghill grooms’ in Henry VI: Part I. Perhaps inevitably in this period, this association with ‘low’ birth and poverty comes almost ready packaged from the outset with the idea of a lack of refinement, nobility of character, or sophistication; in a variant on a familiar line, the prince Hamlet of the First Quarto of 1603 asks, ‘Why what a dunghill idiote slaue am I?’ Despite this, Shakespeare’s use of dunghill is still sometimes glossed by editors as carrying the sense of ‘coward’ or ‘cowardly’.

It’s not until 200 years after the ‘dunghill cur’ and Lydgate’s duck that an explicit distinction can be seen to be made between a ‘dunghill cock’ and ‘a right bred Cock of the game’ in the context of cockfighting, and around a century more until a bird which isn’t ‘game’, either in its breeding or its unaggressive behaviour in the pit, can be called simply ‘a dunghill’. Our evidence for the further direct (rather than similative) extension of these terms to people and behaviour regarded as cowardly begins in the second half of the eighteenth century.

One of the pleasures of revisiting the excellent but necessarily limited picture of a word’s history provided by NED is being able to use our greater access to searchable texts and to corpus technology in order to develop, refine, and enlarge upon the achievements of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century editors of the dictionary. Another unique, but nonetheless typical, pleasure in revising dunghill was to rescue an ordinary domestic duck from imputations of cowardice and vileness.




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