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Coxcomb

Definition: There are two definitions for Coxcomb. They are: The ‘comb’ on top of the head of a rooster or  A conceited fool

Pronunciation: kocks-cohm

Origin:  This word has a tricky origin. The word ‘comb’ was originally the name for a jester’s hat – that three-peaked harlequin piece of fabric that, even today, is unmistakable as the symbol of the jester. The word comes from the old Norse kambr, meaning ‘teeth’ – which makes sense as the pattern is, essentially, tooth-shaped. What we know as a jester did not come into being until about the mid 1500s – which is about the same time that the word ‘comb’ was used to describe the arrangement of the wattle-like material perched upon the head of a cockrel. While I’m not entirely sure what the coxcomb was called before the jester came along, I do know that it was – rather gruesomely – used as a garnish for dishes. In old French cookery, for example, one would never ask the question ‘with what will I garnish this plate of delicious profiteroles?’ One would have simply known that nothing goes better with a plate of cream-filled choux pastries than a rooster’s head wattle …

Why this word?

This word – as described above – is not necessarily an unusual word. But there is a second meaning – one that is altogether more playful. A Coxcomb came to mean a foolish person – thus bringing the meaning full-circle back to the jester from whence it sprang. In particular, it was used to great effect  as an acceptable 19th century American political insult.

How to use this word

This is a difficult one – but I believe it still can be used by a certain type of person to describe a fool. I’ve designed a little test to see if you can use it:

Question 1: What do you earn in a year?

Potential Answer 1: I earn enough

Potential Answer 2: I would like to earn more

Potential Answer 3: Earn? I thought people were just born with money.

If your answer was 1 or 2, then I’m afraid that coxcomb is not for your lexicology. If you chose number 3, then move on to the next question.

Question 2: What did you study at college?

Potential Answer 1: I studied something that would allow me to give back to the community

Potential Answer 2: Does alcohol count as a subject?

Potential Answer 3: I was planning to study Art History until I realised that I myself was the future of art.

Again, only answer 3 keeps you in the running – answers 1 and 2 mean that you have to hang up your coxcomb and retire.

Question 3: What colours do you prefer in your plaid jackets?

Potential Answer 1: I like yellows, browns and greens

Potential Answer 2: Red-based plaid works well for me.

This is, of course, a trick question. If you own a plaid jacket at all, then you are now exactly the type of person that can use the word coxcomb to describe a fool. And you’ve also passed the most critical test concerning your readiness to spot and label a coxcomb – the old adage of ‘it takes one to know one’ …

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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!

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