February 19, 2014

Case File #014.02.19: RIGMAROLE

Rigmarole is essentially a phonological attrition of rageman rolle, a thirteenth-century term that referred to a long roll of parchment used in a then-popular party game. Written on the parchment was a series of verses that each described the personality of a colorful made-up character, and attached to the heading of each verse was a piece of string. The object of the game was for a partygoer to select a piece of string at random, read aloud the verse to which the string was attached, and then assume the described persona for the remainder of the party. (Supposedly, hard-core gamblers of the era played a more serious version of the game that operated under slightly different rules.) Since the first character listed on the parchment was Rageman the Good (whose name was likely derived from Ragemon le bon, the name of a popular character in Anglo-French poetry), the game was called Rageman and the roll of verses Rageman's rolle, though the moniker for the latter was quickly corrupted to rageman rolle and later to ragman roll. Interest in the game died out during the early sixteenth century, and while the term ragman roll was still in wide use, it had by then acquired the more figurative sense of “any long list or catalog.” By the early eighteenth century, however, the term had contracted to the now familiar rigmarole and had come to mean “confused, incoherent, or rambling discourse.” And in the mid-twentieth century, the word rigmarole—now sometimes spelled rigamarole to reflect a common pronunciation—acquired the additional secondary sense of “a complex but often trivial procedure.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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