Wacky Word Wednesday: Hornswoggle

There's mystery surrounding this week's wacky word. Despite a listing in Peter Watts's 1977 reference book A Dictionary of the Old West – and an almost plausible explanation for its etymology – the word hornswoggle remains unexplained.

This word should be immediately recognisable as an American colloquialism, though it is listed in the Macquarie Dictionary also. It means “to deceive or con”, and the phrase “I'll be hornswoggled” can also be an exclamation of amazement. It first appeared in print around 1829 and has remained popular in the US. (Even the World Wrestling Entertainment has its own Hornswoggle, a diminutive and popular wrestling champion.)

In 1920 hornswoggle popped up in PG Wodehouse's Little Warrior:

Would she have the generosity to realize that a man ought not to be held accountable for what he says in the moment when he discovers that he has been cheated, deceived, robbed,–in a word, hornswoggled?

Then, along came A Dictionary of the Old West, which purported to explain the origin of hornswoggle. In it, Watts claimed the word came from “cow punching” – the act of lassoing a steer around the neck. When lassoed, the poor steer would twist frantically to escape the rope. If one did manage to escape, the cowboy who let it happen was said to have been hornswoggled.

As nice a theory as this is, it's unlikely to be true. There's nothing to prove this is where hornswoggle originated. It's more likely it's just one of those wonderful made-up words that pop up in English every now and then (like rambunctious, or bamboozle). And now that you know what it means, how about trying to use hornswoggle in a sentence? Leave your answers in the comments below.

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