My pal Monica loves odd words as much as I do, and she recently sent me one so weird I have to share it with all and sundry. OED (entry from 1976):

hoden, adj.

Pronunciation: /ˈuːdən/
Forms: Also hooden.
Etymology: Origin uncertain: perhaps from association with wooden from the wooden horse’s head.

Kentish dialect.

Of or pertaining to the horse with wooden head and clapping jaws featured in a masquerade which formerly took place, spec. in Kent, on Christmas Eve. ˈhodener n. a performer in this masquerade. ˈhodening n. the name of the performance; also attributive.

1807 European Mag. 51 358 This [mumming] is called, provincially, a Hodening, and the figure above described a Hoden, or Woden horse.
1887 W. D. Parish & W. F. Shaw Dict. Kentish Dial. 77 Hoodening.., the name formerly given to a mumming or masquerade.
1891 Church Times 2 Jan. 20/1 ‘Hodening’ still goes on..at Deal and Walmer.
1909 P. Maylam Hooden Horse i. 2 Everyone springs up, saying, ‘The hoodeners have come, let us go and see the fun.’
1966 G. E. Evans Pattern under Plough xix. 193 The hobby-horses that appear in many countryside ceremonies and ritual dances, notably the Hodening Horse.
1971 Country Life 17 June 1533/1 The Hooden Horse, a mystic man-animal found only in East Kent, will be at large in Folkestone..June 19.

So much weirdness here, starting with the pronunciation, as if it were “ooden”! If there’s no /h/, why is it spelled that way? Do they no longer have the masquerade at all, even in the remoter regions of the county? Does the expression survive even if the thing itself has vanished? Any Kentishpersons (or persons of Kentishness) among my readership?


  1. David Marjanović says

    Evidently Kent is H-dropper country, and the h is etymological speculation from the association of hood with masquerades.

    In German, of course, Hoden is pronounced as expected and means “testicle(s)”…

  2. It has reportedly been revived by Morris dancers:

    Hoodening died out during the early 20th Century. The custom was only revived in the 1950s when a Hooden Horse was found in Walmer, and a copy made. East Kent Morris adopted this as their mascot, and gradually other Morris sides followed suit.

    Never seen a Morris dancer or a Hoden horse, but I’ll have to keep an eye out if I pass through Margate – if the notorious difficulty of connecting anything with anything there doesn’t stop me from making the link.

  3. Detailed but swampy; none of the hypotheses are especially convincing. The OED’s “Origin uncertain” is disappointing but honest.

  4. Monica says: “Death of a Fool is a mystery novel by Ngaio Marsh that goes into great detail about the thing.”

  5. This particular one uses a wooden horse head, but other similar customs use a real horse skull, so I would be suspicious about a derivation from “wooden”. Maybe Woden, or something to do with Robin Hood? Just speculation.

  6. The English Dialect Dictionary, FWIW:

    HODENING, sb. Ken. Also in forms hoodening Ken.¹; hooding Ken.² The name formerly given to a mumming or masquerade on Christmas Eve, still applied to the singing of carols.

    ‘Hodening’ still goes on…at Deal and Walmer…We were warned of the arrival of this creature by a very loud clapping noise, and on rushing to the street-door, saw a horse’s head, supported on a pole by a man in a crawling position so as to resemble an animal, and covered in front by a coarse cloth. Nothing was done or sung by the small crowd around and the clapping caused by the opening and shutting of the mouth continued, till the creature having been satisfied with money was driven away, Church Times (Jan. 2, 1891) 20, col.1; The custom of ‘going a hodening’ at Ramsgate is now discontinued, but the singing of carols is still called ‘hodening,’ Brand Pop. Antiq. (ed.1848) I. 474; Ken.¹ Formerly the farmer used to send annually round the neighbourhood the best horse under the charge of the wagoner, and that afterwards instead, a man used to represent the horse, being supplied with a tail, and with a wooden figure of a horse’s head, and plenty of horse-hair for a mane. The horse’s head was fitted with hob-nails for teeth the mouth being made to open by means of a string, and in closing made a loud crack. The custom has long since ceased; Ken.²

    [The word hoodening is locally associated with wooden, from the wooden figure of the horse’s head.]

  7. A whole book was written about it. The practice is documented from the 18th century. The name is recorded as early as 1807. Other than the “wooden” and “Odin” theories, nothing here either.

    Maybe somehow apropos, how did voodoo become hoodoo?

  8. In Silver on the Tree, the young protagonists meet the Welsh version.

    It was the skeleton of a giant horse, staring with the blind eye-sockets of a skull, running and leaping and prancing on legs of bone driven by ghostly muscles long rotted away. It caught them almost at once. Faster than any living horse it galloped, and without any sound. Silently it overtook them, head turned, grinning, an impossible horror. The white bones of its great rib-cage glittered in the sun. It tossed its dreadful silent head, and red ribbons dangled and fluttered like long banners from the grinning lower jaw.

    The creature was playing with them, driving them this way and that, as a kitten plays with a beetle. It leapt to and fro before them, then stopped in its tracks, hooves skidding in the sandy soil. Then with the leering skull thrust out, jaws open wide, it charged at them in terrible silence—and was suddenly past them, behind them, waiting again. Swinging round wildly, Bran stumbled and fell.

    The skull tossed on the spine that was a neck; the teeth glittered, the red ribbons danced round a strange broken stump in the centre of the bony forehead. In the same soundless menace it stood watching them out of the blind skull, hoof and bone pawing at the ground. Will swallowed.

    “You all right? Get up!”

    Bran was sitting up, blinking wide tawny eyes; his glasses were gone. “The Mari Llwyd!” he whispered. “The Mari Llwyd!” He was staring at the thing as if bewitched.

    Apparently, in more magical times, such creatures dwelled on Earth, but now they only exist in the Lost Land. However, a memory of them persists.

    “Ah,” Bran said. “The original Nightmare, that thing. There is an old Christmas custom, in South Wales, of something called the Mari Llwyd, the Grey Mare—a procession goes through the streets, and a man dressed up in a white sheet carries the skull of a horse stuck up on a pole. He can make its jaws open and shut and pretend to bite people. And one Christmas when I was very small the Rowlands took us down there visiting, my Da and me, and I saw the Mari Llwyd and it frightened the lights out of me. Terrible. Screaming nightmares for weeks.” He looked up at Will with a weak smile. “If anyone had really wanted to put me out of my head, they couldn’t have chosen a better way.”

    I assume Bran‘s description of the local custom is accurate—although it might not necessarily have been something that the author Susan Cooper witnessed herself, so it might or might not have been current in the second half of the twentieth century, when the book was written.

  9. OED’s 1807 cite, Lameen’s link, and M’s (gold-star) Wikipedia article all have “a ho[o]den~” rather than “an h~”.

    The wiki starts by giving pronunciation /ʊd.ɛnɪŋ/, which is haitchless but also differs from OED. Later it says “Maylam noted that most nineteenth-century sources describing the tradition had spelled the word as hoden, but that he favoured hooden because it better reflected the pronunciation of the word with its long vowel.” And yet Wiki favours oo spelling with short vowel pronunciation while OED has o with long vowel.

    Wikipedia’s Hobby horse article lists Mari Llwyd, Hooden Horse, and others in Britain and elsewhere

  10. The old Mari Llwyd, she ain’t what she used to be…

  11. Jen in Edinburgh says

    It made me think of oo/ool type forms for ‘wool’, and ‘owling’ for smuggling wool, but the OED says of the latter ‘Any connection with northern forms of the word wool n. is made unlikely by the association of owling and owlers particularly with Kent and Sussex.’

    Connections with ‘wooden’ seem a bit semantically unlikely, anyway – why would the wood be the most striking thing about it?

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    Bosworth-Toller has
    wóda = A madman,an insane person, one possessed
    wóden-dreám = Madness, fury

  13. David Marjanović says

    German Wut n., wüten v. “rage”, wütend “enraged”, “mad as hell”. Apparently the state of mind you get into when you’re possessed by old Wuotan.

  14. There’s a hop hoodening festival in Canterbury every September, although it seems to be a 1950s revival. I always thought “hooden” was “wooden” with the W dropped, which seems to have been a feature of dialects across the south-east – you often see eg “old ‘ooman” for “old woman” in 19th-century novels.

  15. Joseph Post says

    An encounter with Robin Hood, From TH White, “The Sword in the Stone”:

    “Oh!” cried the Wart in delight. “I have heard of you, often, when they tell Saxon stories in the evening, of you and Robin Hood.”

    “Not Hood,” said Little John reprovingly. “That bain’t the way to name ‘un, measter, not in the ‘ood.”

    “But it is Robin Hood in the stories,” said Kay.

    “Ah, them book-learning chaps. They don’t know all. How’m ever, ’tis time us do be stepping along.”

    They fell in on either side of the enormous man, and had to run one step in three to keep up with him; for, although he talked very slowly, he walked on his bare feet very fast. The dog trotted at heel.

    “Please,” asked the Wart, “where are you taking us?”

    “Why, to Robin ‘ood, seemingly. An’t you sharp enough to guess that also, Measter Art?”

    The giant gave him a sly peep out of the corner of his eye at this, for he knew that he had set the boys two problems at once—first, what was Robin’s real name, and second, how did Little John come to know the Wart’s?

    The Wart fixed on the second question first.

    “How did you know my name?”

    “Ah,” said Little John. “Us knowed.”

    “Does Robin ‘ood know we are coming?”

    “Nay, my duck, a young scholard like thee should speak his name scholarly.”

    “Well, what is his name?” cried the boy, between exasperation and being out of breath from running to keep up. “You said ‘ood.”

    “So it is ‘ood, my duck. Robin ‘ood, like the ‘oods you’m running through. And a grand fine name it is.”

    “Robin Wood!”

  16. If you want to go there, riding trusty Hathi, there was in early 1600s in Kent the estate Hoden of the family St. Nicholas.

  17. My default assumption is that any explanation of anything that involves Woden is a nineteenth-century “pagan survival school” conjecture unless demonstrated otherwise.

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