Printable Version
Pronunciation: mêm-bêl-di-peg Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: Knifey (Scotland), stagknife (New Zealand), stick-knife. A game in which boys throw or flip their (pocket)knives to see which boy is better at sticking his knife in the ground from different positions or throwing their knives various ways. The rules vary from region to region.

Notes: Some people still spell this word with a hyphen, as mumblety-peg. Aside from the rare use of this noun as a verb meaning "to play mumbletypeg", is has no derivational family.

In Play: mumbletypegIn Galaxy Magazine, 139, 2 (1870) Mark Twain put it this way: "If anybody caught him playing 'mumble-peg' by himself, after the age of sixty, he would immediately appear to be ciphering out how the grass grew." We might hear it used thus: "The young'uns wanted to show off their mumbletypeg skills with the Bowie knife they found in dad's camping gear."

Word History: Today's Good Word started out its life as mumble-the-peg for reasons lost in the bowels of time. From the 17th through the 19th centuries usage varied from the original 'mumble-the-peg' to just 'mumble-peg', as we see in the Mark Twain quote above. Mumble in the 14th century was momelen "to eat slowly", and today mumble still retains that meaning. It is assumed to be the sense of mumble in mumbletypeg, since one variant is that the loser has to pull up the winner's knife from the ground with his teeth. It could be related to mum, but there are no theories as to how. Little more is known about peg. In the 15th century it was spelled pegge, suggesting a kinship with German Pegel and Dutch peil "watermark rod". That would relate it to PIE bak- "stick, to hit", source also of Late Latin bacillus "little stick", diminutive of baculum "stick" and Greek baktron "stick, staff". (Yet again we are indebted to Eric Berntson, a contributor since 2006, for today's very odd Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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