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26 April 2010

Monday's Word - Comeuppance

 The novel's finished.  The hero and heroine have ridden (metaphorically speaking) into the sunset, secure in their 'happy ever after'. the final mystery is solved and the villain or villainess as had his or her 'commuppance'.
Hey,wait a minute, rewind that last word.  What does 'commuppance' really mean?

Back to my trusted source of weird words and their originis, *Michael Quinion, who says in his 'World Wide Words':

'It's common enough that few people stop to think what an odd word"comeuppance" really is. Why should it mean the punishment or fate that someone deserves, a just retribution or just deserts?

The Oxford English Dictionary directs enquirers about its origin to sense 74 of the verb "come", implyinging that it derives from "comeup". That's reasonable, since the most common early written form in the US - where the word seems to have been invented around themiddle of the nineteenth century - was "come-up-ance", which we may guess is the situation or consequence of having "come up".

The OED and some other dictionaries suggest it refers to "comingup" before a judge or court for judgement. That's supported by theearliest evidence for the related expression "come-uppings", known in American English from rather later..."

Curiously, "come-upping" is recorded in Cornish dialect in 1880 in the sense of a flogging. It's possible that it's a quite separate form, which was taken to the US by migrants and became associated with "come-up-ance".

Wherever it came from, it's a useful word and as long as we have the written word to delight us with novels of romance and intrigue, we can be sure the villains will always get their 'comeuppance'. Is this a word you use yourself?  Or do you have another pet word or phrase to describe the demise of the villain in your writing or reading?

*World Wide Words is copyright (c) Michael Quinion 2010. All rights reserved. The Words Web site is at http://www.worldwidewords.org/