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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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HA ha.

Dear Word Detective: Have you seen the word “cully” used to mean “trick” or “deceive”? Where does it come from? Was it in use in the mid-1800’s? — Deborah L.


A bitter disappointment.

That’s an interesting question, but I’d really like to know, as the late Paul Harvey used to put it, the rest of the story. Are you reading a book set in the mid-19th century and trying to determine whether the word “cully” is genuine slang of the period or perhaps just a typographical error? If so, your concern is well-founded. The gentle art of professional proofreading, at which I myself labored for several years in my youth, is in eclipse these days. This is especially true in book publishing, where the production budget for a given book, including proofreading, is mercilessly tied to an estimate of its future sales. So if you want a letter-perfect read, stick to Stephen King and Tom Clancy. For anything without embossed lettering on the cover, however, bring your own dictionary and several large grains of salt.

In any case, “cully” is indeed slang for “to deceive, trick or make a fool of” someone, and, while considered obsolete today, it was in common use from at least the late 1600s onward (“Having for some time being cullied out of his money,” Life of Muggleton, 1676). The noun form of “cully,” meaning “one who is cheated” or, more generally, “a fool, dupe, sucker, or simpleton,” is a few years older, its first appearance in print (so far discovered) coming in 1664. Both the noun and the verb forms may well be substantially older, however, because “cully” was originally thieves’ cant, slang of the criminal underworld, a species of speech which often took many decades to appear in print during that period.

Interestingly, the noun form of “cully,” which primarily meant “fool” or “dupe” when it first appeared, was also used to mean “pal, friend, workmate,” a meaning that became more common in the 19th century. Incidentally, “cully” in its various forms and senses has no connection to “cull” meaning “to select and eliminate members of a group,” as in “culling a herd of livestock.”

“Cully” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “of uncertain origin.” A connection has been suggested to the Romany (Gypsy) term “chulai,” meaning “man,” but evidence is lacking so far. “Cully” may also be connected to “cullion,” a fairly obscure English word that originally meant “testicle” and later was used to mean “rascal, knave, vile fellow.”

Swamp Yankee

Um, OK, I’ll take “frantic and shallow.”

Dear Word Detective: Can you tell me the origin and meaning of “swamp Yankee”? I have heard a few versions; the meaning is sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice. — Evelyn.

Every so often I wonder what Marcel Proust would have come up with had he been exposed to American popular culture. I suspect he would have read your question, dipped his Twinkie in his Yoo-Hoo, and been instantly reminded of the ditty that goes, “Oh be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s brother; be kind to the birds of the swamp, where the weather is cold and damp” (pronounced “dahmp,” of course). Or maybe that’s just me.


Not our sort, dear.

Onward. I vaguely recall encountering “swamp Yankee” prior to receiving your question, but I can’t claim to have given the phrase much thought. That’s a bit odd, since “swamp Yankee” is usually used to mean a resident of Southeastern New England, particularly Rhode Island and Connecticut, and I grew up in Connecticut. I did know I was a Yankee, of course, and assumed I fell in the middle of the spectrum delineated by an aphorism usually attributed to E.B. White: “To foreigners, a Yankee is an American; To Americans, a Yankee is a Northerner; To Northerners, a Yankee is an Easterner; To Easterners, a Yankee is a New Englander; To New Englanders, a Yankee is a Vermonter, and in Vermont, a Yankee is somebody who eats pie for breakfast.” But nobody mentioned swamps.

Then again, growing up in the suburbs, I apparently didn’t fall into the demographic group usually considered “swamp Yankee.” The term seems to have first appeared in print in the 1930s, but is no doubt much older. A scholarly article on “swamp Yankee” by Ruth Schell published in American Speech (the journal of the American Dialect Society) in 1963 defines the term as meaning “a rural New England dweller who abides today as a steadfast rustic and who is of Yankee stock that has endured in the New England area since the colonial days.”

The significance of “swamp” in the phrase is a matter of dispute. Some say the first swamp Yankees were the less desirable immigrants from England in colonial days, relegated to the outskirts of civilization (“the swamps”) by the Puritans. Others interpret the “swamp” as simply referring to the rural, old fashioned way of life preferred by swamp Yankees, in contrast to the frantic and shallow life of the city-dweller.

Whether being a “swamp Yankee” is a good or bad thing depends, as usual, on where one stands. In her article Schell noted that people who might be considered “swamp Yankees” resented the term when applied to them by outsiders, but often used it among themselves. From the “swamp Yankee” point of view, they are preserving the true independent, self-sufficient spirit of New England. Today, to the extent that the term is still used, it seems to have become the New England equivalent of “redneck,” connoting rural living and a lack of sophistication to the broader society, but embraced as a badge of pride by those so labeled.

Runcible spoon

Adventures in cutlery.

Dear Word Detective: In what year did Lord Runcible invent the Runcible Spoon? And why was it then named after him, rather than just calling it a “spork” or a “foon”? — David Paul.

“Foon”? Dare I confess that “foon” is new to me? Yea, furthermore, that it pleaseth me? Oh well, perhaps I’m just easily amused. I’ve never been fond of “spork,” however, because it sounds like the name of some “extreme” sport, perhaps one involving bungee cords and cutlery. And if one were to assume that “spork” is an onomatopoeic or “echoic” formation, a word concocted to sound like the thing or action it denotes, being “sporked” sounds distinctly painful. Of course, “spork” isn’t echoic, it’s a “portmanteau word,” a combination of two or more existing words, “spoon” and “fork” (in the spirit of “motel,” combining “motor” and “hotel”). (“Portmanteau” is an old word for suitcase, and the term “portmanteau word” was invented by Lewis Carroll.) Anyway, sporks have been in use since at least the 19th century, although the word “spork” is apparently a 20th century invention and is still a trademarked term in the UK.


"It's what's for dinner," said the Dolomphious Duck.

The provenance of “foon” (also a combination of “fork” and “spoon”) seems to be a mystery. While a Google search produces almost two million hits for the word, “foon” is apparently also a fairly common surname, so that’s no help. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “foon” was in common use as a form of the word “foe” from the 14th though the 17th centuries, which is a shame since it seems like such a friendly little word.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the “spork/foon” was not invented by Lord Runcible, who never invented anything because he didn’t exist, so feel free to change your name to Lord Runcible the First. “Runcible spoon” is today usually employed as another name for a spork, but that application is, as we shall shortly see, unwarranted.

The term “runcible spoon” was invented by the English writer Edward Lear, whose “nonsense poems” have entertained children and adults since the late 1800s. Lear’s “The Owl & The Pussy-Cat,” written in 1871, contains the first mention of “runcible” in the verse “They dined upon mince and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon, And hand in hand on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon….”

Lear used the word “runcible” in several other works, in which he mentioned a “runcible raven,” a “runcible cat” and a “runcible wall.” Unfortunately, Lear never explained what “runcible” meant or where he’d found it. One theory is that “runcible” is derived from the archaic term “rouncival,” meaning “large.” It’s also entirely possible Lear simply made up the word.

Interestingly, in another of Lear’s works, “Twenty-Six Nonsense Rhymes and Pictures,” he offers a drawing of “the Dolomphious Duck” catching “Spotted Frogs for her dinner with a Runcible Spoon.” The spoon in the drawing is simply a large, long-handled and deep spoon (resembling a ladle, in fact), definitely not a serrated “spork.” So Lear invented the term “runcible spoon,” but apparently never intended it to mean “spork.”