In my perusal of the OED, I have run across the most extreme example I’ve seen of disparity between the weight of scholarly apparatus brought to bear on a word and the fugitive nature of the word itself, which occurs once in the 15th-century morality play The Castle of Perseverance. Ordinarily, I’d urge people to start putting the word back into use, to justify the labors of the OED’s etymologists, but since the word is an abusive term for a woman, that won’t do. At any rate, here’s the entry (warning: the following contains both misogynistic language and rank etymological speculation):

motyhole, n. Obs. rare–1.
[Origin uncertain. The second element is app. HOLE n.; the first element is perh. MOTEY a. (although this is first attested much later) with sense ‘dusty, dirty’, or perh. MOTHY a.1 (although this also is first attested much later; cf. form mote s.v. MOTH n.1), or perh. related to Frisian mot sow, female rabbit, ungainly person (also in the compound motbaarch, slut, slattern, lit. ‘sow-pig’), Middle Dutch motte, mutte sow (Dutch mot (regional) sow, (arch.) loose woman, whore), Middle Low German mutte, motte sow (German regional (Low German: East Friesland) Mutt, Mutte sow, German regional (Low German: Westphalia) Mutt (slang) vulva), Middle High German musse loose woman, whore (German Mutze (slang) loose woman, whore, vulva), of uncertain etymology.]
As a term of abuse for a woman: a slut, a bitch.
a1450 Castle Perseverance 2120 Therfor, fast, fowle skowte, Putte Mankynd to us owte, Or of me thou schalt haue dowte, thou modyr, thou motyhole!

There is a modern English translation here, which renders the lines in question thus:

Therefore, fast—foul scum—
Put Mankind thee from,
Or I’ll beat thee like a drum,
Thou mother! thou suck-hole!

“Suck-hole”? The OED says “(a) ? (see quot. 1626); (b) U.S., a whirlpool, a pond; (c) Canad. and Austral. slang, a term of abuse (cf. SUCK n.1 12)”; I presume the third sense is intended. But if you ask me, they should have kept “motyhole.” After all, it’s in the dictionary.


  1. Which edition/version of the OED?
    I can’t find it in my OED2, neither paper nor CD edition.

  2. It’s in the brand New Edition, “draft entry Mar. 2003.” Ha ha! You’re behind the times!

  3. Drat!..
    It’s good to know they still care about adding 15-th century words, though.

  4. If you’re going to bring back motyhole, can we take a few minutes to reintroduce malkin as well? (“Now I goe, now I fly, Malkin my sweet spirit and I.” I think that’s it, roughly: t’s been a while.)

  5. Sure, “malkin” is a great word! Quite a range of meanings; I’ve left in just a few of the quotes (yours is under 5a):
    I. Simple uses.
        1. a. A typical name (usu. derogatory) for: a lower-class, untidy, or sluttish woman, esp. a servant or country girl. In Scotland: an awkward or ungainly young girl. Also in various proverbial expressions, esp. there are more maids than Malkin (obs.).
        b. Sc.The female genitals. Cf. MERKIN n.1 Obs. rare.
       1602 (1554) D. LINDSAY Satyre (Charteris) 1920 in Wks. (1931) II. 191 Gif that our mawkine cryis quhisch. 1800 R. BURNS Merry Muses (1911) 68 When maukin bucks, at early f-ks, in dewy glens are seen, sir.
         c. = MAID MARIAN n. Obs.
        2. An impotent or effeminate man; a weakling.
        3. a. A mop; a bundle of rags fastened to the end of a stick, esp. for cleaning out a baker’s oven. regional in later use.
        b. Naut. A sponge attached to a jointed pole, used for cleaning out ships’ guns. Obs.
        4. A scarecrow; a ragged puppet or grotesque effigy; a guy. Also fig.
        5. As a designation for certain animals (sometimes as if a proper name).  a. A cat. Cf. GRIMALKIN n. Obs.
    [a1616 SHAKESPEARE Macb. (1623) I. i. 8, I come, Gray-Malkin!] a1627 T. MIDDLETON Witch (1945) III. iii. 1355 Fire: hark, hark, the Catt sings a braue Treble in her owne language. Hec. going up. Now I goe, now I flie, Malkin my sweete Spirit and I. 1637 T. MORTON New Eng. Canaan II. v. 83 Mise there are good store, and my Lady Woodbees black gray malkin may have pastime enough there. a1687 C. COTTON Poems (1689) 182 We went, and e’er Malkin could well lick her ear,.. forsooth, we were there.
         b. Sc. and Eng. regional (north.). A hare.
        II. Compounds.
        6. malkin-mad a., mad as a hare. malkin-trash Obs., a person dressed in dark gloomy clothes.
        1773 R. FERGUSSON Poems II. 106 The fuddlin’ Bardies now-a-days Rin *maukin-mad in Bacchus’ praise. 1787 W. TAYLOR Sc. Poems 65 Down the brae I gaed fu’ wight, An’ lap an’ sang, grown maukin mad. 1890 A. M. BISSET Spring Blossoms 33 Maist Englishmen wad jist as lief Gang maukin-mad as want their beef.

  6. Greymalkin is the name of one of the cats in John Masefield’s “The Midnight Folk” (which comes before, and in my opinion is superior to, the better-known “The Box of Delights”). A potent part of my childhood!
    And according to the Wikipedia list of fictional cats” there is also “Graymalkin, Jill the Witch’s familiar and accomplice of Snuff, from the novel A Night In The Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny, (a graymalkin or grimalkin is an old or evil-looking she-cat)”
    I had no idea it was anything other than a traditional name given to a witch’s familiar.

  7. Graymalkin is also the First Witch’s familiar in Macbeth.

  8. Hence the first quote (in brackets) under definition 5.

  9. Oops, missed that.

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