Word Of The Week – Jiggery-Pokery

Language is so wonderful! Even as you think you have a pretty wide-reaching vocabulary, someone, usually a writer, but in this case a very intelligent and well-read justice of the Supreme Court, will introduce you to a new word or phrase that you had never heard before.

This past week Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a scathing dissent of his co-supremes majority decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act against a court challenge by accusing his assenting colleagues of “interpretive jiggery-pokery”, which sent me scurrying to my dictionary to identify this phrase I had never heard before.

Justice Antonin Scalia

I’m sure more than a few people (OK, maybe it was just me) thought that the Supreme Court Justice was making up a word, since he had stated that, “Words no longer have meaning…” and suspected he was illustrating that point with the seemingly nonsensical phrase, Jiggery-pokery. However, it turns out he was using an English term that dates back to the late 1800’s meaning, “deceitful or dishonest behavior”, but it’s even a little more descriptive than that. In popular usage, it meant what we mean when we say “baloney”, “rubbish” or “hogwash” to indicate what has been stated holds very little or no truth.

Editors over at the Oxford English Dictionary traced the phrase back to a Scottish word, “Jouk”, which meant to skillfully twist one’s body as to avoid a blow. It seems pretty obvious that Scalia was writing that the majority justices had twisted their views or bent themselves in order to make words seem what they did not clearly (in his opinion) mean.

But it’s even a little more descriptive than that.

The word, “Jouk”, led to Scots using the word or its variable of joukery to describe trickery, or even worse, dealing in an underhanded way. Another Scottish word, “Pawk”, meant a trick. The words were eventually combined into the phrase joukerypawkery, or what is referred to as rhyming reduplication. It eventually morphed into the English phrase “jiggery-pokery” that Justice Scalia employed. A real word/phrase with a real defamatory meaning.

It seems clear that Scalia was attempting to paint his colleagues as people who were willing to bend and twist themselves to perpetuate a trick or in a tricky fashion to arrive at the basis for their decision. Quite the insult, I would think, to his colleagues. He’s clearly not trying to win friends and influence people.

But he did broaden our vocabulary.

About The Word Of Jeff

I'm a freelance writer and blogger who has written for, among others, Tribune Media Services, Suite101 and Athena Guides. As an intrepid traveler I have chronicled some of my travels at The Verbal Vagabond, my travel blog. And, being an avid amateur photographer, I also have a photography blog spotlighting photos I have taken of areas around my hometown at Postcards From Maggie Valley. Speaking of Maggie Valley, that is where my wife, our Golden Retriever/Border Collie mix, Bella, our Orange Tabby, Tigger and I live in a log cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina, just at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I enjoy hiking, camping, art, travel, photography (as mentioned above), and an occasional glass of good wine while reading or writing in front of the fireplace.
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