Webster or Heimlich?
Dear Word Detective: A friend of mine used the word “larrixter” (which, for all I know, might be spelled “larrickster”) to describe a roguish type — a rascal, a wiseguy, a ladies’ man. Any clue on the origin of that? I’ve tried looking it up but couldn’t find a definitive answer. — Slidedaddy.
Hmm. I have to say at the outset here that hunting down an odd word when we don’t know how it’s spelled is often impossible. In fact, I usually avoid questions along the lines of “My mother just muttered something in the next room that sounded like ‘felfbork.’ What do you suppose she meant?” I’ve learned that in such cases I almost invariably search for hours, only to eventually conclude that the speaker was either insane or talking with her mouth full.
But your question struck me as relatively sober and specific and, while I don’t have a definite answer for you, I do have a plausible theory.
It is true that you can paw through dictionaries and slog through the web until the cows come home and find no trace of anything that resembles “larrixter” or “larrickster” in the sense you mean. If we cast a somewhat looser net, however, we come up with the noun “larrikin,” which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “street rowdy” or “hoodlum.” “Larrikin” is not very common in the US, but it’s a staple of slang in Australia and New Zealand, where it has a long history dating back to the 1860s. “Larrikin” was first used as a strong pejorative in reference to criminal gangs in the late 19th century (“We are beset with larrikins, who lurk about in the darkness and deliver every sort of attack on the walls and roof with stones and sticks,” 1868), but has since been tempered into a rough synonym of “rascal” or “rogue” with overtones of “free-spirited rebel.”
The origin of “larrikin” is, alas, unknown, but its roots apparently lie in the dialectical slang of 17th and 18th century England, and it may be related to the verb “to lark,” meaning “to play tricks or frolic.” There is, for example, an English dialect verb “larack,” meaning “to lark about.”
The similarities in both form and meaning of “larrikin” to the “larrickster” we seek are obviously very strong, and I, for one, am convinced that they are actually the same word. As for how “larrikin” might have morphed into “larrickster,” I think we may be seeing the result of an unconscious effort to make “larrikin” conform to the more familiar form of English “agent nouns.” An agent noun is a person or thing that performs the action of a given verb, as a “driver” drives, an “editor” edits, etc. Agent nouns in English almost always end in “er” or “or,” and sometimes in the form “ster” (e.g., trickster, fraudster). It is entirely possible that the unusual ending “in” in “larrikin” led someone to assume that a verb “to larrik” underlies the word (as it may). So, over time, the weird “in” ending was trimmed from “larrikin” and “ster” was added to make it sound more like a person who “larriks.” Voila, “larrickster,” or something like it.