Q: I was watching a news program, and one of the guests said someone "was in high dungeon" instead of "high dudgeon"! Meanwhile, is "dudgeon" ever preceded by a word other than "high"? — Linda Rusin, Suffield, Connecticut
A: Oh, the difference a single letter can make. "Dungeon," meaning "a dark, underground chamber for holding prisoners," has no linguistic relation whatsoever to "dudgeon," meaning "a state or fit of anger."
"High dudgeon" conveys a special type of fury: righteous, astonished indignation. Picture a pearl-bedecked, high-society dowager, such as Margaret Dumont of the Marx Brothers films, marching out of the room huffing, "Well, I never!"
Speaking of the Marx Brothers, I'm imagining this dialogue:
Chico: Balmoric the Terrible is in high dudgeon about being imprisoned.
Groucho: In high dungeon, is he? Well, then put him in the low dungeon!
Chico: But he's already in the low dungeon. That's why he's in high dudgeon.
The error of using "high dungeon" for "high dudgeon" occurs quite often. In 2012, The American Prospect noted that "the Democrats were in high dungeon about Republican obstruction." Those poor Democrats found themselves in the dungeon again in 2016, when U.S. Senator Ted Cruz said that, after mass shootings, "Democrats go on high-dungeon."
While "dungeon" is thought to be derived from the Latin "dominus" (master), the origins of "dudgeon" remain a mystery. There's no connection whatsoever between the "dudgeon" meaning "angry" and an entirely different but identically-spelled word "dudgeon," an obsolete term for the wooden handle of a dagger. Shakespeare's Macbeth unsheathes this "dudgeon" as he addresses the imaginary dagger that appears before him: "I see thee still, / And on thy blade and dudgeon, gouts of blood."
Though "dudgeon" is almost always used in the phrase "high dudgeon," writers sometimes pair it playfully with other adjectives. In 2015, political columnist Jules Witcover wrote that President Donald Trump had responded to a hostile question with "uncustomary low dudgeon," while media critic Bill Carter complained last February that few people have spoken out about bigoted comments "even in low dudgeon." And in a 1998 review of the film "Dr. Akagi," Stuart Klawans wrote that the title character reminded him "of Groucho in his moments of high, or even middling, dudgeon."
I'm imagining Groucho (in middling dudgeon) saying, "Beware of the rats, lice and fleas in our dungeon; it's a little verminous. Why there's a little worm in us, I have no idea."
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.