Dudgeons and Dragons



High dudgeon. No it’s not a charming village outside of Oxford, but it’s a place all right, and it’s where a lot of us academic types live.

The Google NGram Viewer would suggest that dudgeon, meaning something like a fit of temper, enjoyed its heyday in the century or before World War II, a point at which, perhaps, the scale and language for anger and outrage was recalibrated.

Dudgeon is a lovely word, not to be confused with gudgeon, about which more in a moment.

The OED’s first definition for dudgeon is the turned wood handle of a knife or dagger. Perhaps it’s a small step to the more familiar second definition: “a feeling of anger, resentment, or offence; ill humor.”

In the 16th century Gabriel Harvey and Robert Greene (who knew something about resentment) seem to offer our first confirmed sightings of the word. Its precise origin, however, is unknown, a condition that contributes to its aura.

As Euopean readers of Lingua Franca know from their weekends fishing, a gudgeon is a small freshwater fish. But that’s the second definition. The first definition of gudgeon explains that it’s a kind of pivot that can be deployed with a hinge and used with a bell or axle or wheel.

Though the OED is too responsible to make the leap, gudgeon and dudgeon share definitions that concern turning. Whether that’s grist for any etymologist’s mill I shall leave to my betters.

It’s been many years since I first read with unexpected delight Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (and encountered for the first time the orthographic form compleat), but I remain a piscatory ignoramus. I have no idea whether the gudgeon is under threat of extinction. The word dudgeon, however, is hardly thriving. In fact, its most common–and to my ears the only–usage is in the expression high dudgeon.

If you’re in high dudgeon you’re not just in a fury, you’re in a resentful fury.

Which is why the word sits nicely in a blog on language in academe. Academics are often in high dudgeon. I do not claim they always inhabit this state groundlessly, and conditions in academe being what they are, there is plenty of reason for frustration. But there is a special something about academic dudgeon.

My doctor’s office has a poster that helps patients indicate the degree of their misery. The face halfway down the scale is no longer smiling. It is turning red. The face is experiencing mas dolor. It could be worse–it isn’t yet sporting a bright red frown with cartoon tears–but it’s on its way. Mas dolor feels a lot more painful to me than “hurts a lot.”

Think for a moment how useful it might be for departmental chairs, the ombuds gentry, HR officers, and other practitioners of charismatic healing to have a similar chart of pictographic indicators. Imagine the needless words saved, the time better spent, as one’s next appointment arrives and with a simple gesture indicates the present degree of dudgeon. No longer smiling, face turning red: mas dudgeon.

Then again, maybe the gradations are subtleties that the word dudgeon has never needed.

No one’s ever in low dudgeon. Especially not us academics.