This week’s word is rigmarole. It’s one I use in speech fairly often (usually entreating my teens to get to the point of their story) but I hadn’t seen it in print for a while so when I spotted it in “A Crown of Swords”, the seventh book in the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan, which I’m enjoying at the moment, it reminded me to hunt up its origins.
A rigmarole (pronunciation here) is defined as a confused or meaningless story or a complex and sometimes a ritualised procedure. Hence it can either be a verbal thing like the rambling story which never reaches a logical conclusion, or it can be an overly elaborate approach to a task. As a writer, both those things are to be avoided.
Rigamarole doesn’t have the clearest of origin stories but I’ll do my best. It arrived in mainstream English in the 1700s to describe a long, rambling verbal story, possibly from a local expression in Kent. In the 1500s, in Middle English, there was a thing called a ragman’s roll and that was probably the source of the Kent expression.
What was a ragman’s roll? I assumed it was a rolled up pack by a traveling salesman, but apparently not. The roll in this case was more akin to a school roll (list of enrolled pupils). The roll was a long list or catalogue, in this case describing, in verse, characters in a medieval game of chance called Rageman. The fact that the game was complex probably added to the meaning of rigmarole over time.
Rageman probably came into English from Anglo-French Ragemon le bon (Ragemon the good) who was both a character on this list and the title of one of the verses.
I was unable to get clear instructions on how to play Ragman’s Roll but it was widely popular in Anglo-Norman households. Some descriptions claim there were up to 50 mini verses (often bawdy) from which each player would draw one at random to tell their fortune, particularly as it related to matters of love. Thanks to Philip G Hunt’s blog for those details.
By 1939 the idea of a rigmarole being a long list had transformed into foolish or complex activities as well as such stories and lists.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
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