The Friday Fillip: “All That Is the Kinge’s Stuffe”

Because we must read so much, it’s rare for you or me to come across a word we don’t know. I suppose there are at least three reasons we might: the word is old, obsolete; it’s a jargon word, proper to some trade or art we don’t practice; or it’s slang from a crowd we don’t hang with (such as young people, for example). All three explain “ligger”.

I came across it in a recent novel, used as a slang term originating in the British music scene that, according to the Urban Dictionary, means among other things:

An individual who attends parties, openings, social gatherings and events with the sole intention of obtaining free food and drink – an arch blagger.

Such statements are never enough for me, and I wind up, well, winding my way on a ramble through the word hoard like some beagle on a frolic in an autumn wood. You can see, perhaps, where you might want to go next. “Arch blagger” is a deliberate provocation, wouldn’t you say (especially with the double g in both)? “Arch” is more or less straightforward: prime or pre-eminent, and capable of adding a knavish cast to the nouns that follow (except, perhaps, for deacons). But “blagger”? In the stuffy words of the old (not updated) OED definition: a scrounger, a bluffer, a cadger; smooth talking is the theme here — to blag — origin uncertain, like all the best words, but maybe related to French blague, or joke.

But “ligger”: how come? Whence? It seems to have a Nordic or Dutch origin, though again no one is certain, and still lives in some languages to mean “lie” — not as in to tell a lie, but to lie down. And with that sense, a number of other, old and arcane meanings appear in English. One that crops up most often, I think, has an architectural sense (“arch” again; but flattened this time:) and means to describe “a horizontal timber of a scaffolding, a ledger“. (This ledger — ligger — can also be a flat stone that covers a tomb in a church, giving us deacons again.) The Architect’s Illustrated Pocket Dictionary explains the jargon a little more precisely:

a scaffolding beam running parallel to the wall of the building under construction, which carries putlogs.

Ah, “putlogs”! Lovely word, but if we chase after that we’ll never find our way back. And even the more familiar “scaffolding” is worthy of a deeper look — on another occasion.

A “ligger” is also the “nether millstone.” Not the bottom millstone, note, nor the under one, but nether. However, this way, too, lies . . . dissipation, because the trade of milling has “gear, tackle, and trim” with names that would form a delta out to the sea if parsed and pursued: hopper, shoe, crook string, shoe handle, damsel, eye, runner stone, bedstone . . .

And a “ligger” catches fish — pike, to be precise. It’s a long float, often made of rushes tied together that “lies” on the water, from which a baited line is dropped to the right depth for the season and the ducking of which signals a bite.

And on it goes, but we must stop following, except to note with the OED that a “ligger” is, or was, a coverlet, according to the Liber Niger (Black Book), folded into the Collection of Ordinances for the Governance of the Royal Household (1327–1694) in which there is a notation in 1483 of “hangers, liggers, and all that is the Kinge’s stuffe.” Is that not lovely?

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