Daily Archives: July 26, 2013


Is this a warlock with wings folded? A witchy marlin? One of H.G. Wells’s morlocks? A place like Porlock, whence an importunate visitor supposedly came to Coleridge and interrupted the composition of “Kubla Khan”? Some mixture of Moriarty and Sherlock? Or the device with which one or the other conserves his preserves? Is it a mackerel? Or is it just a red herring, a mockery?

With each successive look, the sense seems to pull back and vanish, like Eurydice falling back into Hades or – more pertinently – like the enunciation of this word, starting cushiony at the lips /m/, rolling through liquids at the front and middle of the tongue /rl/, and then knocking quickly at the back /k/ on its way out.

Do you clamour for the sense? Do you hope you will have more luck with etymology than with sound? It depends on which tree you bark up. If you bark up the Austronesian tree, you will get an Australian Aborigine word marlok for a kind of eucalyptus tree, small and shrubby, similar to a mallee and having a smooth-bark version called a moort. Marlok is anglicized to marlock by those who have reason to call it anything.

But if you bark up the Indo-European tree, you get a verb meaning ‘frolic, dance, play around’ and an apparently related noun meaning ‘joke, prank, caper’ but also ‘flirtatious glance’. The origin of this word is unknown, but it’s a regional usage in northern England, which suggests to me that it may have a Scandinavian origin (northern England has a fair bit of this, as it was under Danish rule or influence for a fair while a millennium ago), or it could be a toponym (like Donnybrook and Bedlam)… except that there is no place called Marlock or anything like it in northern England.

Well, we may marlock all we want with this word, but in the end we have an etymological marlock. The question that then remains is whether by that we mean a prank… or a flirtatious glance?