« I Know That Already! | Main | Individual Journey »

The Scrivener: The Wobblies, And More

Brian Barratt takes us on a fascinating journey through the wonderful world of obbles,

For more of Brian’s joy-filled columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his mind-expanding Web sitewww.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Please join me in an exploration of a unique little group of English words. They are listed in less than half a dozen places on the Net, but the lists are usually incomplete. You'll be hard pressed to find definitions of all of eight of them. This will probably be the first time they have all been listed and discussed.

They are the -obble words: bobble, cobble, gobble, hobble, knobble, mobble, nobble and wobble.

Bobble was first used early in the 1800s. As a noun, it can mean a small ball of fabric and also a type of error made in a ball-game. As a verb, it means to bob up and down. You've seen it used to describe those silly toys that people used to put on the shelf inside the rear window of a car, like a bobble-headed dog or even a bobble-headed Pope.

Bobble is related to bob, which has about 20 separate entries in The Oxford English Dictionary. It can mean, among other things, cluster, lump, tassel, the bob of a pendulum, a term used in bell-ringing, and a shilling.

In As You Like It, Shakespeare has 'not to seem senseless of the bob' where bob means a deceitful act or to make a fool of someone. A person who is senseless to a bob is not aware that he has been duped, or ignores a taunt.

In Othello, Shakespeare wrote, 'He calls me to a restitution large, Of gold and jewels that I bobb'd from him, As gifts to Desdemona' where the verb bobbed means took by deception.

Cobble can mean to repair shoes and to put something together quickly and roughly, As a noun it can mean a cobble-stone of the sort that were used to pave market places and streets in centuries gone by. In his famous novel Dracula, Bram Stoker also used it to denote a type of boat:
More than one captain made up his mind then and there that his "cobble" or his "mule," as they term the different classes of boats, would remain in the harbour till the storm had passed.

In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, we find a delightful description of a cobbler:
Flavius. Thou art a cobbler, art thou?
Second Commoner. Truly, Sir, all that I live by is with the awl; I meddle with no tradesman's matters, nor women's matters, but with awl. I am indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them. As proper men as ever trod upon neat's leather have gone upon my handiwork.

Gobble, like cobble, has been used in English for several centuries. If you gobble your food, you are eating in too noisily and quickly. If you happen to be a turkey, it's the noise you make.

In The Way of All Flesh (1903) Samuel Butler gives us a delightfully insulting description of someone who:
...was a passionate, half-turkey-cock, half-gander of a man whose sallow, bilious face and hobble-gobble voice could scare the timid, but who would take to his heels readily enough if he were met firmly.

That 'hobble-gobble' voice leads us to the next -obble word, of course.

Hobble has been with us since about the 14th century, when it meant to limp, to walk unsteadily. In spite of a search, I can't find it in Shakespeare's works, which surprises me. If a reader can correct me, I will be very grateful.
Jonathan Swift used it in Gulliver's Travels. Here's an example:
We apprehend his Imperial Highness, the Heir to the Crown, to have some tendency towards the High-Heels; at least we can plainly discover one of his heels higher than the other, which gives him a hobble in his gait.

Knobble. It appeared in the late 1400s, meaning a small knob. It was used only in connection with the manufacture of iron. You probably won't find many occasions on which you can use it.

Mobble and also moble. If you can find them in your dictionary you will probably read that they are obsolete except in dialect. There are some rather dubious meanings on websites but the original meaning in the 1600s was 'to cover one's face'. Shakespeare uses it to denote a covered or muffled face in Hamlet II,2,line 499ff:
First Player. 'But who, O who, had seen the mobled queen—'
Hamlet. 'The mobled queen'?
Polonius. That's good! 'Mobled queen' is good.

Nobble is a fairly well-known word, in use for only about 150 years. As a verb, it means to incapacitate a race-horse by drugging it. In British slang it can also mean to swindle, to cheat.

Wobble is the last word in this list. It is a Germanic word that has been around since the 1600s, meaning irregular or clumsy moving or rocking to and fro. In slang or colloquial speech, someone who has the wobblies might be inebriated or, simply, feeling faint.

There we are. I hope you have enjoyed this brief journey through the wonderful -obbles of English!

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2011


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.