Ods bodkin! Is this a dagger I see before me? Well, yes, but wrong play. If you know this word at all, it’s a fair bet you know it from one place and think of one phrase with it: “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?”
Yes, it’s that word from the most famous soliloquy in the English language, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” (translation: “Should I kill myself? Why not?”). Well, that speech is laden like an overgrown, overripe fruit tree with what linguists call “low-frequency words” (you don’t see them much!) – and, of course, oft-quoted phrases. And what instrument can help one to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, cut out the contumely, and unbind the fardels? Why, a bare bodkin.
Words, words, words… And what the heck do those words mean? Ay, there’s the rub. That soliloquy is worth a week’s worth of word tasting notes at the very least. Well, one at a time, and perhaps not all together; otherwise you would get something truly epic in your inbox. First to the bodkin! As word taster David Moody, who recommended this word, says, “if one needs to use a bare bodkin on oneself, it is a body’s kin, a boon to end what can so easily become a boondoggle…” A consummation devoutly to be wished, but we’re heading for undiscovered country here…
But what a punk little word it is, no? The kin is a diminutive – well, it is in some other words, and is thought to be in this one. (Actually no one is really sure where this word comes from; it seems to have appeared as though floating in midair, but it was around centuries before Shakespeare – Chaucer used the word too.) Kin can also call to mind family. Its shape is given a kick by the k. The bod is, well, a clear echo of body and perhaps of bawd too (“Get thee to a nunnery”? Nunnery was also a slang term for a whorehouse). It has that little perk like bud, but it’s not at all bad. It’s a very round little thing, too: three circles between two lines.
Put together, bodkin is more like a pumpkin than a poniard, but its object is something of the latter – a dagger, or an awl-like implement for piercing fabric, or a pin-shaped hair fastener. You probably don’t have one. Hamlet may not have, either – he used a sword, but in the end foiled and was foiled. Idiomatically, God has one: the expression of surprise ods bodkin means “God’s bodkin,” and evidently trades mainly on the rhyme. It is a family name, too: you may at some point meet a person with the last name Bodkin, and I don’t know whether there is a relation to this word (though most of us have relatives who are rather sharp or, anyway, brief and to the point). And then there was that hard-boiled Shakespearean-era murder mystery that was a hit at the Edmonton Fringe Festival two decades ago (I was there but missed seeing it), The Maltese Bodkin by David Belke.
Well, I think we have covered the point here, and may put up. The hour is late, after all. To bed, to bed… To sleep? Perchance to dream!