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14 Secret Words for Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories are everywhere these days. Here are a few old words you can use to describe them while adjusting your tinfoil hat.

1. COMPLOTMENT

This absurd-sounding term has been around since at least the late 1500s. It arises from the now equally obscure word complot, which is used a few times in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Complotting is conspiring: You can plot on your own, but to complot, you need to be in cahoots with cohorts. A use in a 1594 book by John Dickenson captures the deceptive flavor of this term, describing “Complotted practises of bloud and reuenge.”

2. TRINKETING

Trinkets are doodads and tchotchkes, but to trinket is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To have clandestine communications or underhand dealings with; to intrigue with; to act in an underhand way, prevaricate.” The etymology is a mystery, but it might be related to trick. This sense has been around since the 1600s, and you can smell outrage (and sexism) in this use from Walter Scott’s 1821 book Kenilworth: A Romance: “A woman, who trinkets and traffics with my worst foes!”

3. CLANDESTINITY

This word for a clandestine state of affairs has been around since the 1600s. Here’s a fact that should appeal to conspiracy buffs: You can’t spell clandestinity without destiny. Spooky, right?

4. CABALLING

Like so many nouns, cabal has been verbed. An 1866 use from Cornhill Magazine will give you new appreciation for the duplicity and intrigue of convents: “That petty partisanship and caballing which are the curse of convents.”

5. HUGGER-MUGGER

Reduplicative words rule, but this one rules in secrecy. Since the 1500s, to be in hugger-mugger has meant to be shrouded in secrecy. Alternate spellings include hocker-mocker and huckermucker. This word can also be an adjective, especially in the phrase “hugger-mugger doings,” which are never innocent. Hugger-mugger can also be a verb with a few shhh-y meanings. An 1862 use from the New York Tribune describes “Listening to key-hole revelations, and hugger-muggering with disappointed politicians.” In 1898, a Daily News article describes the motivation behind many cover-ups: “For two years the City Corporation tried to hugger-mugger this nasty little incident out of sight.”

6. HUDDER-MUDDER

The parent of hugger-mugger is probably hudder-mudder, which has the same meaning and appeared a little earlier—in the 1400s. In a 1545 book by Roger Ascham, the sneaky meaning is invoked along with yet another alternate spelling: “It hydes it not, it lurkes not in corners and hudder mother.” Sorry, Mom.

7. COLLOGUE

Several senses of this word have been around since the 1600s, and one of them involves calamitous collusion. In James Heath’s 1663 book Flagellum, he described vile varmints who “never ceased plotting and conspiring, now colloguing with this party, then with that.” Iago and Loki are two classic colloguers.

8. CAMARILLA

This is a Spanish word for a little room—but in English, that little room or chamber can hold big, massive, gargantuan secrets, because a camarilla can also be a cabal. In R. M. Beverley’s 1839 book Heresy of a Human Priesthood, he describes “a camarilla of priests, who, with closed doors, make all the laws by which the society is regulated.” In any era, that’s kooky talk.

9. CLANCULAR

This is a synonym and close relative of clandestine found since the early 1600s. OED examples describe “whisperings and clancular suggestions” and “Proceedings ... not close or clancular, but frank and open.” If you enjoy the spy drama The Americans, you like watching clancular shenanigans.

10., 11., AND 12. DERN, DERNHEAD, AND DERNSHIP

As far back as Old English, anything described as dern was hidden, concealed, and secretive. To keep something dern was to keep it under wraps. This meaning spawned words for secrecy such as dernhead and dernship.

13. AND 14. SCUGGERY AND SCUG

Scuggery has the ring of something foul, and that stench is the scent of secrecy. Sadly, this word has never been very common, but it does have a parent found in the 1500s: scug referred to shadows or other concealment, so scuggery became the goings-on in those shadows. Scug could also be a type of pretense. Scottish author and minister Alexander Shields used the term in a 1688 lecture: “Some did boast of their pretended Performances, and do make them a scugg to hide their Knavery with.” This word deserves a revival. There are more knaves than ever these days, and they can make a scug out of anything.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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