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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Letter 14: Jane Austen's Nidgetty Cap

In Letter 14, JA writes "....[by borrowing Cassandra's cawl] I have been able to give a considerable improvement of dignity to my Cap, which was before too _nidgetty_ to please me."

What did she mean by this? According to Eileen Sutherland, writing in the 1984 Persuasions, "Nidgetty" was a rare word which meant "trifling". Later Catherine Kenney added that the OED credited JA with inventing this word. And then in the Winter 2003 issue of Verbatim, Barry Baldwin defined nidgetty as pertaining to midwives.

I found those definitions unsatisfactory, the matter still seemed very murky to me, and worthy of a little investigation with the help of Google, starting on the assumption that something "nidgetty" would probably resemble a "nidget", which I suspected might be the Regency Era word for what we today call a "widget" or a "gadget".

And sure turns out there was such a device in Jane Austen's time. In _The rural economy of the southern counties;: comprizing Kent, etc._, William Marshall in 1798, at p. 63, wrote:

"Another implement, which is peculiar I believe to Kent, is the "Stricking Plow," with which channels, grooves, or seed seams are struck, drawn, or opened, in broken or fallow ground. The principle of construction is still that of the turn-wrest plow; the operating parts being long pieces of wood, resembling the chip or keel of the plow: these are generally two in number; sometimes three: in some cases only one. The beam or beams, with which these keels are connected, rest on a gallows, or cross piece, similar to that of the common plow, but lighter. The method of using this instrument will appear in its place.

Another implement, which is likewise peculiar, I believe, to this country, is the "Nidget," or horse hoe of many triangular shares, fixed, horizontally, at the lower ends of tines, or coulters. These are fastened in a somewhat triangular frame of wood work; and in cross bars, morticed into the outer pieces of the frame. At the angle, or narrowing part of the implement, by which it is drawn, is a wheel, to give the hoes their proper depth.

It is observable, that the construction of the Kentish Nidget and the Tormentor of West Devonshire (see West Of England) are in effect the same: the latter, probably, having been copied from the former; and increased in size, so as to suit it to the intended purpose."

Closely parallel with that description was Arthur Young's _Annals of agriculture and other useful arts_, Volume 6 (1786), at P.20:

"...and then missing three for an interval sufficient for the nidget which I designed should assist the plough in cleaning it. Beans will come up through the furrow on almost any land, except on lays..."

So, I suggest that JA, who has often been accused of being lacking in visual imagination because she gives so little description of appearances in her novels, had a very perceptive eye, and saw, in her own Cap, a sort of sharp helmet-like shape which she found unstylish, and which needed a fashion upgrade by accessorizing with CEA's cawl (whatever that might be). And with her interest in the whole natural world, including agriculture, she would have been interested in farm gadgets like nidgets.

Cheers, ARNIE

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