Are you codding me with all this stravaging?

Brian Moore, last seen on this blog Irishly having tea, uses a couple of interesting dialect words in his 1958 novel The Feast of Lupercal. One of them, codding, is in my idiolect in various forms, including codology; the other, stravaging, I’ve seldom seen and had to look up.

An old sexton, dusting the church in the evening, is obliged to let in two people preparing for a play:

… some people had no consideration, stopping a man in the middle of his work. Every afternoon for the past week they had come stravaging up for their rehearsals, the pair of them. Once, they even came back at night.

Brooding on the interruption, the sexton is annoyed that the church hall is regularly opened for plays, lectures, card games, and ‘all kinds of codology’. Later he wonders, ‘Are they codding me, or what?’ Then two other characters have this exchange:

‘So help me God it was the first time I ever tried.’

‘That’s the best yet. Who do you think you’re codding, Devine?’

‘I’m not codding!’

If you didn’t know the words, you could probably infer their meaning from the context. Codding is joking or fooling. The verb, attested from the 19C, can be used transitively or intransitively: Are you codding me? is Are you joking me?, while I’m only codding is I’m only joking/messing. Beckett, in Waiting for Godot, has Pozzo say, ‘He wants to cod me’.

Cod is also a noun in the senses of fool or joke/nonsense. You can make a cod of someone, as in Seán O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman: ‘If you want to make a cod of anybody, make a cod of somebody else.’ Or you can say that something is a cod: ‘That thing about dying for the faith is all a cod’ —Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes.

Book cover for Brian Moore's The Feast of Lupercal, from Granada Publishing. The cover is white, with a fine illustration by Caroline Binch of the book's protagonist: a male teacher with red, somewhat unkempt hair, round glasses, white shirt, black tie, and green tweed jacket and waistcoat. He is holding his earlobe with his left hand and has an old-fashioned mien. Above him is the author's name and book title, then a quote from the Daily Telegraph: "Moore is surely one of the most versatile and compelling novelists writing today"The fool sense is older: the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang both note its first appearance in the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (c.1698). In the 18–19C it appears repeatedly in collections of British slang. It may come from English dialect, but its ultimate origin is unknown. Loreto Todd, in Green English, suggests a possible Irish etymon in cadach /ˈkɑd̯əx/, defined by Dineen as ‘humbug’.

Cod in the sense ‘joke, hoax, leg-pull’ is attested from the early 20th century, such as in Joyce’s Portrait: ‘Some fellows had drawn it there for a cod.’ It can also function as an adjective: Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes a politician on Irish TV news saying: ‘that’s a cod argument: everyone knew what they were voting for’.

Irish English, with its fondness for mixing and messing, attaches the learned suffix –ology to this slang word to produce codology, defined as ‘hoaxing, humbugging’ in the OED, which has an amusing citation from the Daily Express, 1928:

There is in Ireland a science unknown to us in England called Codology… The English is ‘leg-pulling’… When I received an invitation to breakfast at the Dublin Zoo I thought that I could detect the hand of the chief codologist.

Though they’re etymologically unrelated, it’s worth comparing codology with codswallop, one of many florid English words for nonsense. Joyce, inevitably, includes it in Ulysses: ‘The why and the wherefore and all the codology of the business.’

I’d be interested in where people use or hear cod in these senses. It’s part of my active vocabulary, and I hear it regularly enough. As far as I know it’s part of the vernacular all over Ireland, but I’m open to correction. And is it used further afield?

A narrow grassy path through a dense carpet of bluebells, with a scattering of lichen- and moss-covered trees. Some brown leaves have fallen, but most remain on the trees. The colour of the blubells dominates the photograph.

Stravaging through the bluebells in Portumna Forest Park in Galway

The other word that struck me in Moore’s book is stravaging. When I saw it first I rhymed it with ravaging, but the bare form is actually /strəˈveɪɡ/ ‘struh-VAGUE’ (or in Irish English often /sθrɑˈveːɡ/ ‘sthra-VAGUE’), hence the spellings stravaig, stravague, and stravege. It means ‘to wander about aimlessly; to saunter, to stroll’ (T.P. Dolan, A Dictionary of Hiberno-English).

It can be used transitively: stravaging the road, the streets, the fields, the boreens, or the world. More often it’s intransitive, as in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September: ‘They do be stravaging about always and not contented at all.’ The Dictionary of the Scots Language has lots of citations and related vocabulary.

The pronunciation confirms its derivation from Old French extravaguer, according to Jeremiah Hogan (The English Language in Ireland, 1927), quoted in Dolan. It may be an aphetic form of extravage, a rare verb in English meaning to digress or ramble, either physically or figuratively.

Stravage occurs in Scottish, northern, and Irish English, the OED says, but I don’t think I’ve heard it in the midwest of Ireland. Have you come across it in your own stravaging? No codding, now.

[more on Irish English]

37 Responses to Are you codding me with all this stravaging?

  1. bevrowe says:

    You can use ‘cod’ to form infinitely long sentences. I think it may be the only English word you can use in this way.
    Start with ‘cod cod cod’. (Some fish do fool each other, in fact, so this is not as unlikely as it seems.)
    However, some of these cod are not real cod, so ‘cod cod cod cod’ or even ‘cod cod cod cod cod’. And then, sometimes, they are only pretending to cod each other: they are cod codding. So ‘cod cod cod cod cod cod’.
    In fact some of these cod cod are real cod, ie cod cod cod, and they are really fooling each other, not pretending, ie they are cod cod codding. Or they might be pretending to be cod cod cod, ie cod cod cod cod.
    And so it goes, to any length you like, adding ‘cod’ before any of the three components of the sentence.

    • Stan Carey says:

      This is marvellous. I’d forgotten all about it.

    • John Cowan says:

      I might add that Buffalo buffalo have been known to buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

      • bevrowe says:

        Well, the buffalo sentence uses two spelling of B/buffalo and is quite short, whereas the cod sentence can infinitely long.

        When I tried to introduce my cod sentence into a Wikipedia article on repeated-word sentences, it was almost immediately removed by the moderator on the grounds that Wikipedia does not publish original material!

        I composed this sentence some years ago and it has been on my own blog but no one seems to have picked it up anywhere on the internet.

        (Stan implies that he has seen it before. Where was that?)

  2. mazblast says:

    I don’t know if it applies to English in its various forms as spoken in Ireland or the UK, but in American English, “kid” or “kidding” seem to be the closest words to “cod” and “codding”.

  3. M Blockley says:

    Attractive etymology for “kid” in this sence, but did any of my fellow Americans ever say “I cod you not”?

    • Stan Carey says:

      No one is sure where the verb kid comes from, but the OED and M-W suggest it’s from the noun, which has Scandinavian origins (specifically Old Norse kið). The OED also notes the connection to cod (v.).

  4. Joan says:

    I think codding became kidding

  5. Tom Maxwell says:

    In my Dublin youth I remember my mother and grandmother often using the word ‘stravaging’ when talking about someone wandering aimlessly. As for ‘codology’, it’s a word I frequently use myself. I like it.

  6. sawneymac says:

    I first came across ‘stravaigin’ when a bar-restaurant of that name opened round the corner from us in Glasgow way back in the early 90s (I used to enjoy the odd pint of Guinness and pint of prawns there on a Friday evening):

  7. astraya says:

    I thought for a moment that the fitness tracker app Strava might derived from stravage, but it turns out strava is Swedish for ‘strive’.

  8. Linda Sage says:

    How about “codswallop”?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I cover it in the post, about two-thirds of the way down.

      • ktschwarz says:

        The OED did a full revision of cod and related words in September 2020, and their blog post on the origin of codswallop is a classic. Amazingly, it’s not a very old word; the OED first entered it in 1972, and it was one of the targets of the Wordhunt shown on the Balderdash and Piffle TV show. That took it back only to the 1959 Hancock’s Half Hour, whose writers were interviewed, and denied coining it; they said it was already in everyday language, and they used it because it sounded funny, and it sounded a lot like prohibited words such as bollocks and cobblers (rhyming slang: cobbler’s awls = balls).

        So where did it come from before 1959? The etymologist managed to scrounge up some scant evidence of cod’s wallop in 1928 for ‘a woman who cannot keep her mouth shut’, and later as a generic mild insult for a person. The conclusion: the use for a person was probably rare, or used only by a few people—including writer Alan Simpson’s uncle—and the two writers are indeed responsible for popularizing the sense of ‘nonsense’ to a wide audience:

        Hancock’s Half Hour in particular was watched and listened to by a very large proportion of the British population in the 1950s and early 1960s, so if anything could embed a word in the public consciousness, it could. And the thing about codswallop is that it feels like an old word, even if it isn’t. Ray Galton called it ‘Dickensian’ – and I imagine that many of the audience also thought so, when they decided to apply it to less successful programmes in letters to the Radio Times

        Great stuff.

        • Stan Carey says:

          An amazing bit of word-sleuthing, which I’d missed at the time. Thank you. It’s a testament to the word’s well-coinedness that the mystery of its origins was fuelled in part by its improbably rapid rise to popularity.

  9. John Cowan says:

    There’s an entry for stravaig in the Scottish National Dictionary in just the same sense, along with stravaiger ‘wanderer’ and stravaigueries ‘pranks, roving escapades’.

    I’m most familiar with cod- as a prefix meaning ‘false, imitation, ersatz’. A quick google turns up cod-mediaeval and cod-philosophy.

  10. Thank you for showing us your “cod” piece.

  11. […] is short for Protestant, and codology is codding, i.e., fooling, messing around, another Irish English dialect word, which appends the technical […]

  12. John Aherne says:

    I had always thought the word had to do with the codpiece – you might say to a wearer who did he think he was codding.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That possibility seems a bit too knowing to me, but who knows. Codpiece itself is about 500 years old and comes from an Old English use of cod meaning ‘bag’ or ‘pouch’, now obsolete (though the OED notes that cod in OE also referred to the scrotum or testicles).

  13. Catherine says:

    I knew what stravag meant when I came upon it recently but could not remember whether I learnt it from the many books I read when young or from talking with others. It feels like the latter but no proof, of course. Am in East Anglia and nearly 60, fwiw.

  14. This post is deadly! Thanks for the explanation and history of the words. I’ve been stravaging all over the web seeking Irish slang!

  15. […] Codding is joking or fooling. It can be transitive (I’m only codding you) and intransitive (I’m only […]

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