Amis: no laughing matter
April 8, 2008
Martin “I am a serious” Amis’s book about the scrotum-tighteningly horroristic age in which we live in has attracted an exhilaratingly vituperative review by Michiko Kakutani in today’s New York Times. She starts as she means to go on, referring in the first sentence to “one of these chuckleheaded essays”. Lovely.
But then I began to wonder: what does “chuckleheaded” really mean? I had always vaguely assumed that it was an American coinage dating from within the last century or so, and had fondly visualized a person with a big squishy yellow cartoon head; or alternatively, a person so irredeemably stupid that he does nothing but chuckle: a laughing fool.
Checking in the OED, though, I find that it has been possible to be a chucklehead since as long ago as 1730. In Thomas Bridge’s Homer travestie (1764), we find the following remarkable couplet:
You think the rock of Troy
Some chuckle-headed booby boy.
(He didn’t call it a travestie for nothing.) And although “chuckle” meant “laugh” from 1548, it seems that chuckleheaded is built rather on the sense of “chuck” meaning “lump” (originally the same word as “chock”). So, the indefatigable lexicographers say, “chuckle-headed” is very like “block-headed”. (There are also the mocking usages “chucklepate” and even “chuckle Chin”.)
Gratifyingly, the sense of a “chucklehead” as someone big, lumbering and clumsy might even represent an extra gleeful ad hominem dart, when applied to the small Mr Amis.
But anyway. I am glad to have learned more from Kakutani’s review than I would have learned from reading The Age of Testicle-Torsioning Infinite Horroristicality. A chucklehead is not, as I had always thought, someone who goes round giggling all the time, but someone whose head is so dense that no mere idea can penetrate it.
What words have you only recently discovered the proper meanings of, readers?