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shameless pleading

Clamjamfry

Not our sort, Angus.

Dear Word Detective: Some time ago I encountered the word “clamjamfry,” which I was told referred to “the worthless masses.” I’ve consistently used it as an alternative to “hoi polloi.” One thing that has me nonplussed is that I have never discovered this word in any kind of reputable dictionary. The word certainly sounds as though it has a heck of an origin. Can you shed any light on this term, which appears to be a poster-child for recondite speech? — Topher D.

I must admit that there are times, writing this column, when I feel a bit like a performing hamster. Someone asks a question, I jump into the wheel, work my little paws furiously until I find the answer (or, occasionally, don’t), jump out of the wheel, trot over to my tiny hamster typewriter and put it all down with the old hunt-and-peck. Then I have a Lilliputian cup of joe and pick another question. It can get a little monotonous.

But I found this question instantly intriguing. I am, it is true, easily intrigued (you should see the junk I’ve bought on eBay), but I eagerly went looking for “clamjamfry.”

The first stop in my search was, as usual, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), where I found no listing. Bummer. But I then found some internet references for “clamjamfry” indicating that it might be a Scots dialect term, so I checked the excellent online Dictionary of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk). Bingo! “Clamjamfry” is defined as “A company of people; generally used contemptuously, hence a mob, rabble, the riff-raff of a community.” It can also mean “Hurly-burly, row, commotion” and “Worthless odds and ends, rubbish,” a sense now largely obsolete. As a verb, “clamjamfry” means “to crowd or clutter up,” “to chatter or gossip” and “to roam about aimlessly, to loiter.”

The Dictionary of the Scots Language also listed a variety of alternate spellings of “clamjamfry,” so I went back to the OED and discovered the word was indeed listed, under “clamjamphrie,” with the same basic definitions. It seems to have first appeared in Scots and Northern England dialects in the early 19th century, and its exact roots are a mystery. The OED, however, suggests that “clamjamfry” is a combination of “clan” (in the Scottish sense of “ancestral group”) plus “jampher,” a Scots dialect word meaning “trifler, idler.” That would give “clamjamfry” the meaning of “the riff-raff or rabble of a clan,” which would certainly match the sense of “hoi polloi” (“the common people,” from Greek for “the many”).

The best thing about “clamjamfry” is that it is still very much in use in Scotland and the rest of the UK today (“As the last of the children’s banners swept down the Mound the guests, by now a wholly disordered clamjamfrey, ambled back up the hill for their lunch in Parliament Hall,” 1999). So now we have a great new word to play with.

11 comments to Clamjamfry

  • Marcus Evans

    In common usage in the UK?
    I don’t think so!

    • Jumphry

      “common usage” isn’t what is meant by “very much in use”, which is what the article claims. Common usage would be quite another thing entirely.

  • Victor

    And here all along I thought it was an occasion where clams are fried in jam… Oh well

  • Melissa

    I found it in an old Merriam Webster dictionary that I frequently use to look up odd words. It has become one of my favorite words, and I once used it as the name of my website.

  • Erica

    I saw this word, while looking up things online to help me compose a poem. I recognized it and remembered I had come across the word a very long time ago. I knew what it meant.

    I just used it in a poem to hopefully stump a fellow poet who uses many words in his poetry that force me to do Google searches. I hope I’ve finally one-upped him!

  • Phil

    I’d forgotten that Lewis Grassic Gibbon uses it quite often in “Sunset Song” but that is being remedied with my first read through of that classic in some 20 years. Gibbon takes the usage further and applies it to appearances as well as people or situations in general, “a woman with her face all clamjamfried with paint and powder and dirt,” leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination!

  • john begg

    I use “Clamjafry” from time to time, especially when talking to other Scots, as a slightly derogatory word for a group of people. My grandfather (born in 1880s) also used it and I guess I got it from him.

    On a similar tack, what is the correct definition and derivation of “Hooching” as in “the marketplace was fair hooching with folk” (Very crowded with people)? Dictionaries only seem to give “hooch=illicit booze” which is not the same word.

  • john begg

    Also I think I have seen clamjafry in R L Stevenson, but I can’t remember where? Maybe in “Catriona” when David Balfour is talking to the McGregor Lawyer?

  • john begg

    Yes, it was – ““The Advocate be dammed!” cries he. “It’s the Campbells, man! You’ll have the whole clanjamfry of them on your back; and so will the Advocate too, poor body” From Catriona by RL Stevenson, David Balfour talking to Charles Stewart, Writer (to the signet = Scottish solicitor). If it is correct that it dates from early C19, then RLS has committed a rare anachronism, as Cationa is set in 1751!

  • Peter A. Gallett

    In Dickens’ Dombey and Son: “… a clamjamfry of wild young blades …” So it seems that an unruly passel of rambunctious revelers needn’t perforce be of the hoi polloi in order to constitute a clamjamfrey. Good word, though I still prefer the suggestion “clams fried in jam” proposed by Victor (above).

  • Peter A. Gallett

    Moderator — please correct my attribution of “clamjamfry” in the previous posting — it was NOT Dickens, but a collection of Scottish short stories where I encountered “clamjamfrey”. Sorry about the confusion. I just finished reading Dickens, so it’s still in my noggin.

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