Have you ever had the feeling the English language is some kind of trick? A slick cup-and-ball with peas under jiggers, except there are no peas? A juke box that takes your quarter to put your song in queue but never gets to it? A pig in a poke, a perverted sick joke, some kind of hocus-pocus that leaves you feeling like you’re juggling hot pokers after a few too many jiggers of potcheen? In short, a load of jiggery-pokery?
Never mind English grammar. We know that’s a bit odd and loaded with idioms and other exceptions, and that it’s stripped down from what it used to be and that it’s affected by centuries of influence from other languages. And never mind English spelling. It has its reasons for how it is, even if they’re not necessarily good reasons. No, even just English words, and what they look like and where they come from, may end up being like Peer Gynt’s onion: you peel away the layers only to find that there’s nothing inside the layers. Or at least nothing you can lay hold of.
Take jiggery-pokery. It’s a perky, jiggly word that brings to mind jiggers of liquor and finger pokes and elbow nudges and who knows what else. It’s been seen in English for at least ten dozen years (or sixscore, if that’s how you keep score). Where does it come from, this word for deceitful manipulation? The Oxford English Dictionary says “compare Scots joukery-pawkery.” So we do. That term, known since at least 1686, is formed from joukery (‘underhand dealing, deceit’) and a derived form of pawky (‘artful, sly arch, wry, sardonic’, etc.).
OK, so where is joukery from? The verb jouk (also jook), ‘dodge, duck, dart’. And where is jouk from? The OED says it is “A Scottish word of uncertain origin.” It notes the sound resemblance to duck.
Ummhmmm. And pawky? Apparently from the noun pawk, the OED tells us. And pawk, which used to mean ‘trick, artifice, cunning device’ and now in northern English dialect means ‘impertinence, sauciness’? The OED says “Origin unknown. Compare pawky.” In other words, at the end it loops back to just before the end. It’s like the inner groove on the original Sergeant Pepper LPs: once the needle has played the record to the centre groove, it plays a track that repeats infinitely until you lift the needle.
So. You thought you would get somewhere. Maybe this word is related to jigger? It seems not to be. Or to poke or poker? Again, no. In both cases, the original words have just been shifted so that they sound like the new words. Imagine someone who started hanging out with you and who then got cosmetic surgery to look like a member of your family. Creepy? Happens all the time in English.
I’m telling you, when you hang with English words you get into some pretty louche territory. But that’s hardly surprising, given that English is a language that, as James Nicoll is famous for having said, “has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.” The dodginess is part of its charm. And if it jigs you and pokes you and slips a jigger in your drink and knocks you out with a poker, well, that’s just in its nature.