Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Susan came across the phrase, “a puckish sense of humor” and wondered where it came from. These days, it means a mischievous sense of humor, something characteristic of a prankster.

You will also hear it expressed as “a devilish sense of humor” or as “a wicked sense of humor.” In all three cases, we see a radically diminished or softened meaning. The original devil and wicked were industrial-strength words signifying unspeakable evil.

Puck came to us from a nexus of Scandinavian languages, where it meant an evil spirit. There was nothing playful or mild about the word in those days. By the 16th century, it came to mean a playful goblin that haunted rural areas. It took on the name of Robin Goodfellow.

A hobgoblin named Puck appears in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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