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In a word: coxcomb

By John E. McIntyre

The Baltimore Sun

9:08 AM EST, January 14, 2013

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Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:

COXCOMB

Some words pop into the language and then flicker out, while others fade over a long span. Given the abundance of conceited fools among us, it is a pity that a fine old word for them, coxcomb, has fallen into disuse.

It was originally cockscomb (pronounced CAKHS-com), the word for the crest of a rooster, going back to the Middle English cokkes comb. The association with foolishness developed because the cap worn by professional fools was designed to resemble, in shape and color, a rooster's comb.

From there, the transition to pretentious affectation and foppishness was easy. Coxcomb had a great vogue in the eighteenth century, when the middle class began to get its hands on some serious money and began aping the aristocracy. "A coxcomb is ugly all over with the affectation of the fine gentleman," said Dr. Johnson. The qualities associated with the coxcomb are vanity, conceit, showiness, pretended accomplishments, and superficiality. 

The word lingers in old books, but the phenomenon endures.

Example:  From Jean de la Bruyere: "All the world says of a coxcomb that he is a coxcomb; but no one dares to say so to his face, and he dies without knowing it."