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Long-lost for a reason.

Dear Word Detective: What is the definition of “couzened,” as in “was now resolved to be couzened no more”? Thanks for the help! — Rebecca.

Thanks for a good question. I remember running across that word many times over the years, and inferring its meaning from its context, but I’d never, until now, taken the time to investigate its background.

You don’t give a source for the quotation you cite (assuming it is a quotation from something you’ve read), but a Google search turns up only one source online for those exact words, “William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times From the Year 1602 to 1681,” which was published in London in 1715. Lilly was an interesting fellow, a famous English astrologer who specialized in predicting events with what is said to have been notable success. He predicted, most famously, the Great Fire of London fourteen years before it happened, for which he was rewarded by being investigated on suspicion of having started it himself. He was acquitted.

The particular passage in which Lilly uses “couzened” is titled “Of My Marriage the First Time,” and begins with a description of his beloved: “My mistress, who had been twice married to old men, was now resolved to be couzened no more; she was of a brown ruddy complexion, corpulent, of but mean stature, plain, no education, yet a very provident person, and of good condition….” Twice bitten and now once shy, Lilly’s paramour evidently had a low opinion of her former husbands, apparently with good reason.

To “cozen” (which is the standard spelling of the word today) is “to cheat, to deceive or to defraud by duping.” The word first appeared in English in the late 16th century, probably as slang of the criminal underworld.

There are two proposed origins of “cozen,” and this is one of those rare cases where both may be true. The more straightforward theory traces the word to the old Italian verb “cozzonare,” meaning “to play the horse trader” and, horse trading being a notoriously shifty business, “to play the crafty thief.”

A more colorful theory, however, traces “cozen” to the word “cousin” and specifically the Old French verb “cousiner,” meaning “to claim kinship in order to cheat.” Evidently it was not uncommon for knaves to go literally door to door, claiming to be the long-lost cousin of the residents, in order to gain their trust (and money). This theory is bolstered by the use of the English phrase “to make a cousin of” meaning “to cheat” in the 16th century.

As I said, both stories may be true. Perhaps the word did originally derive from the Italian “cozzonare,” but its resemblance to the English “cousin,” and the well-known use of fraudulent kinship to dupe victims by thieves, popularized “cozen.” Whatever the story, “cozen” is a very cool word.

Intensive Purposes

Might as well throw in the trowel.

Dear Word Detective: I have been having an ongoing argument with a dear friend about the phrase “for all intents and purposes,” which she swears to the death is “for all intensive purposes,” and says I sound like a ninny when I say it wrong. Can you figure out how this phrase crept into common usage and help us settle this dispute? — Collectively Confused in Columbus.

I guess this column isn’t as effective a deterrent to silliness as I had hoped, because I actually answered a question about “to all intensive purposes” about ten years ago, and yet here we are again. You are, of course, correct, and not at all a ninny, at least on this question. The phrase is indeed “for all intents and purposes,” meaning “for all practical purposes” or “in any reasonably likely circumstance” (“After Bob punched his boss, his career at the firm was, for all intents and purposes, kaput”). “For all intents and purposes” has been around since at least 1546 (in the form “to all intents, constructions, and purposes” contained in a law decreed that year by Henry VIII).

The mangled form “for all intensive purposes” has been “spotted in the wild” in print (and noted by linguists) at least since the 1980s, although, as an error in speech, it may have been around much longer. “For all intensive purposes” is a classic “eggcorn,” a re-shaping of a word or phrase that, far from being a simple error, has flourished and persisted because it actually makes a certain amount of sense. The term “eggcorn” itself was coined in 2003 by linguist Geoffrey Pullum when someone online was noticed typing “eggcorn” instead of “acorn.” It was, of course, an error, but an acorn is indeed rather egg-shaped, and is a seed, as is corn, so if one has heard “acorn,” but never seen the word in print, writing it as “eggcorn” is not entirely crazy.

Similarly, “for all intensive purposes” might be defended as logical if “intensive” were interpreted to mean “serious, realistic, or practical,” making the phrase equivalent to “when push comes to shove” (“Smith is a decent hitter, but for all intensive purposes, he’ll be useless in the playoffs”). It’s still “wrong” in that it mangles a long-established English idiom, but it’s not as far off the beam as “The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind” or “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

As to how “intensive purposes” crept into common usage, I think it’s significant that the 1980s also saw the proliferation of “intensive care units” in hospitals and the ensuing use of “intensive” to sell everything from skin lotion to motor oil. Given that “intents and purposes” has a distinctly archaic ring to it, and that “intents” is more rarely used than “aims” or “goals” today, and “intensive” seems like a logical interpretation to folks who have only heard (and never read) the proper form of the phrase.


The Immortal Barf?

Dear Word Detective: What does the word “puke” mean in the following sentence: “Wilt thou rob this leathern jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch…”? — George.

Hmm. For some reason, I have the odd feeling I’ve wandered into an episode of Jeopardy. Well, OK, what is King Henry the Fourth, Part One, by William Shakespeare? I’d like to expound on that answer, but I must admit that the play in question is not my strong suit. I can, however, recite large chunks of both Hamlet and Macbeth from memory should the need arise further down the page.

In any case, our boy Willie certainly had a way with words, and that passage, although probably perfectly intelligible to his contemporaries, presents us with a smorgasbord of mysterious terms. “Leathern jerkin” is fairly simple, meaning a tunic or short jacket made of leather. “Crystal button” and “agate ring” are easily understood indications of wealth and refinement. “Not-pated” is genuinely odd to our ears, since “pate” generally refers to the human head, and Shakespeare cannot have meant that the person under discussion was headless. As it happens, however, the now-obsolete English dialect term “not” (more commonly spelled “nott”) meant “short-haired” or, as is more likely in this case, “bald.” The reference to “caddis-garter” means the man’s stockings were secured with garters made of caddis ribbon, “caddis” being a type of wool cloth.

The phrase “puke-stocking” does give one pause. Read with our modern understanding of “puke,” it would seem to imply the unfortunate aftermath of either excess drinking or food poisoning. But there is, fortunately, an entirely different sort of “puke” involved in this passage. In 1598, when Shakespeare wrote his play, “puke” was a very fine grade of woolen cloth, often used to make stockings as well as other garments. This kind of “puke” first appeared in English in the mid-15th century, derived from the Middle Dutch word “puuc,” meaning “the best grade of cloth.” Interestingly, “puke” cloth was, in Shakespeare’s day, usually dyed deep bluish-black or dark brown, leading to the term “puke color.” This “puke,” however, is unrelated to the brownish-purple color we know today as “puce,” which takes its name from the French word for “flea.” Apparently if one looks very, very closely at fleas (I’ll pass, thanks), they are purple-brown in color.

Incidentally, our modern “puke” meaning “vomit” is almost as old as the fabric sort of “puke,” first appearing as a verb around 1600. It is thought to be “imitative” in origin, evocative of the sound itself, though it may also have been borrowed from the Dutch “spugen,” meaning “to spit.”