Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Scribbledehobble

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 8, 2016

It’s not often you hear some words but when you do, they stick in your mind either because they’re unique or because they’re amusing and entertaining as well as unique.  Scribbledehobble is one of those words.  It can mean hurried, messy writing, or it can be a reference to the workbook with ideas written down quickly with little to no concern for appearance.

Irish novelist and poet James Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) decided to give the notebooks in which he jotted down names, words, ideas, turns of phrase and anecdotes a name.  The name he gave to one of them was scribbledehobble.

There’s some question as to the exact date James Joyce came up with this word.  It’s a fact that when Thomas E. Connolly transcribed and published one of James Joyce’s notebooks in 1961, it was under the title, “Scribbledehobble” in keeping with the first word in the book’s text.

This notebook held the notes for his book “Finnegans Wake” that was published in 1939, and was seventeen years in the writing after his book “Ulysses” was published in 1922.

SIDE NOTE 1:  “Finnegans Wake” is a book that few have read due in large part to the enormous complexity of the text that was written, for the most part, with idiosyncratic language.

Some scholars believe the word was a hybrid of the words scribble and hobbledehoyHobbledehoy is a word that dates back to the early 1500s, and refers to someone or something that is clumsy and awkward.  The word has appeared in many novels over the generations.

It was used in Chapter 47 of the book “Little Women” by American novelist and poet, Louisa May Alcott (29 November 1832 – 6 March 1888), published in 1868.  The book was about four sisters who lived at home with their mother in New England while their father was away fighting in the Civil War.  The family had lost its fortune, but the family managed to make do and to continue living in the house they had always known.

“Now don’t be a wet-blanket, Teddy. Of course I shall have rich pupils, also–perhaps begin with such altogether. Then, when I’ve got a start, I can take in a ragamuffin or two, just for a relish. Rich people’s children often need care and comfort, as well as poor. I’ve seen unfortunate little creatures left to servants, or backward ones pushed forward, when it’s real cruelty. Some are naughty through mismanagment or neglect, and some lose their mothers. Besides, the best have to get through the hobbledehoy age, and that’s the very time they need most patience and kindness. People laugh at them, and hustle them about, try to keep them out of sight, and expect them to turn all at once from pretty children into fine young men.”

It was also used by English writer and humorist Jerome K. Jerome (2 May 1859 – 14 June 1927) in his collection of humorous essays, “Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow” published in 1886.  This was the second published book for the writer, and it established him as a leading English humorist.

The shy man, on the other hand, is humble–modest of his own judgment and over-anxious concerning that of others. But this in the case of a young man is surely right enough. His character is unformed. It is slowly evolving itself out of a chaos of doubt and disbelief. Before the growing insight and experience the diffidence recedes. A man rarely carries his shyness past the hobbledehoy period. Even if his own inward strength does not throw it off, the rubbings of the world generally smooth it down. You scarcely ever meet a really shy man–except in novels or on the stage, where, by the bye, he is much admired, especially by the women.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Jerome K. Jerome’s quotes are well-known even if they may not be propertly attributed to him.  Two of his most noteable quotes are, “It is always the best policy to speak the truth, unless, of course, you aren an exceptionally good liar” and “I like work; it fascinates me.  I can site and look at it for hours.”

Even James Fenimore Cooper (15 September 1789 – 15 September 1851) spoke of “the hobbledehoy condition” in which America found itself in his book “The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna; a Descriptive Tale” published in 1823.  This book was the first of five novels which became known as the Leatherstocking Tales.

This period in the history of a country may be likened to the hobbledehoy condition in ourselves when we have lost the graces of childhood without having attained the finished forms of men.

It isn’t difficult to see how James Joyce would feel compelled to mesh scribble with hobbledehoy to come up with scribbledehobble to describe either hurried, messy writing or the workbook with ideas written down quickly with little to no concern for appearance.  Idiomation pegs this to the around 1920 with thanks to James Joyce for his creativity in coming up with this new word.

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