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In a word: crotchet

The Baltimore Sun

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:


Writers on language and usage are notorious for their crotchets, grooming their pet peeves in public.

Crotchet (pronounced CROTCH-it) comes into English from the French crochet, "hook" or "crook." In early uses the word identified a small hook, as for a brooch, and came to have wider uses, including an instrument in obstetrical surgery, a square bracket in typography, or a quarter note (from the resemblance to a hook) in musical notation.

But very early on, the word took on much wider figurative senses. When Shakespeare writes in Measure for Measure, "The Duke had crotchets in him," the reference is to whimsical fancies, perverse conceits, or peculiar notions.

From that sense derives the word crotchety, whimsical, cranky, or ill-tempered. But crotchety is on the milder range of ill temper, shading toward peevishness. If you want to describe something more aggressive or belligerent, reach for cantankerous.

Example: From Matthew Arnold: "Opinions which have no ground in reason ... mere crotchets, or mere prejudices."


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