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Over the last few posts we’ve been looking at words with roots in literature – make sure you check out our articles on words from Harry Potter, the word ‘quixotic’, and the word ‘malapropism’. Today, we’ve chosen to look at the word ‘puckish’.

‘Puckish’ is an adjective that describes someone who has a mischievous, playful sense of humour – like the fairy Puck. Unlike Don Quixote and Mrs Malaprop, Puck does not come from one specific text, but is a type of character from English folklore, also known as Robin Goodfellow or Hobgoblin. The word Puck refers to both an individual mischievous wood sprite or fairy, and a group of such creatures.

In Old English folklore, the word ‘puca’ refers to a type of woodland spirit known for mischievous acts such as leading people astray at night by using lights and echoes, or sneaking into farms and souring the milk. Other cultures have similar stories of nature spirits and hobgoblins; for example: the Cornish ‘Bucca’, the Frisian ‘Puk’, the Icelandic ‘puki’, and the Old Swedish ‘puke’.

It was William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer’s Night Dream (believed to be written between 1590 and 1596) that most likely brought the word ‘Puck’ into popularity. When Shakespeare’s version of Puck first appears the play, he encounters another fairy who recognises in him similar qualities to those of the traditional woodland sprites:

“Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?” [Act 2, Scene 1]

The play involves several characters in various interconnecting plots that take place in the moonlit woodlands. Among these many characters, Puck is perhaps the most important in the sense that it is he, through a combination of planned pranks and unexpected mishaps, who uses his trickery to set many of the play’s events into motion. He turns one character, Bottom’s, head into that of a donkey’s, and incorrectly spikes another character’s eyes with a love potion – a mistake that results in much chaos and fun. In the sixteenth century there was no standardised spelling or grammar and so words, particularly nouns, would have been capitalised indiscriminately. Unlike nouns such as fairy and goblin, however, the word Puck has retained a capital letter – probably due to the common perception of Puck as a character in Shakespeare’s play rather than as another word for ‘sprite’. It is seen as a proper noun, as someone’s name. Indeed Katharine Mary Briggs, who wrote various books about fairies, including The Anatomy of Puck, said of Shakespeare’s characterisation of the fairy: ‘it no longer seems natural to talk as Robert Burton does in Anatomie of Melancholy of a puck instead of ‘Puck’’.

What do you think your name plus ‘-ism’ might be used to describe? Tweet us or leave a comment on our Facebook page. We’d love to hear from you!

Avani Shah

07 Sep 2013
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