“Cack-Handed”

Reader Evan Geller sent in this quote from Florida writer Diane Roberts in the Washington Post:

DeSantis, a fervent Trump partisan and sports fan who’s shown signs of harboring presidential ambitions, has seen his popularity shrivel of late, possibly because of his cackhanded approach to the pandemic in Florida: opening up too soon, refusing to mandate masks, hiding virus data from the public.

The key term is “cackhanded,” I hyphenate it to follow the OED, which gives this definition: “Left-handed; ham-handed, clumsy, awkward.” It shows up first in an 1854 glossary of Northamptonshire words, spelled “keck-handed.” The etymology “perhaps” comes from “cack,” an archaic word for excrement.

A search at Google News reveals the word is pretty common in the U.K. and Ireland, as in this recent headline from The Irish Times:

But it is quite rare in the United States. The term, in all its variants, has appeared in the New York Times just five times (other than cases where a British speaker is quoted) — all from the same writer! In 1995, political columnist William Safire referred to a politician’s “kak-handed pronouncement.” A few weeks later, wearing his other hat as language columnist, Safire wrote about using it as an example of his propensity “to throw in an obscure word now and then.” And a few weeks after that, he apologized for spelling it wrong the first time. Four years later, he praised a dictionary for including the word.

And finally, in 2008, Safire gave it one more shot, this time with the correct spelling. He referred to an adviser to presidential candidate John McCain’s

impolitic comment to Fortune magazine that a terror attack “would be a big advantage” for his candidate, who is highly credentialed on national-security matters. McCain had to quickly dissociate himself from the cack-handed remark: “I can’t imagine why he would say it.”

Update: I am reliably informed that “cackhanded” user Diane Roberts got her Ph.D. from Oxford University and is a Visiting Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Northumbria.

15 responses to ““Cack-Handed”

  1. “Cack” is not an archaic term for excrement in the East Midlands of England, where I live – it is still very much in use!

  2. Perhaps it comes from the ancient Greek, kakos, meaning bad, as in cacophony?

  3. As a left-hander myself, a term I’ve often heard. To further the explanation of the derivation, supposedly it was to do with having to wipe your arse with your left hand.

    But the head master at my primary school in the north of England used to call me cuddy-fisted. A cuddy is a dialect term for a horse and he told me iit was to do with which hand you held the reins of a horse.

  4. Pingback: “Cack-Handed” — Not One-Off Britishisms | the Goat Rodeo blog

  5. Northamptonshire is the name of the county. The Irish Times is published in Dublin, not in the UK. In some cultures food is eaten from the hand, so it makes sense to use one hand for that and the other for cleaning your bottom.

  6. Northampshire is ambiguous; I assume Northamptonshire is meant. Those fortunate enough to live here usually say Northants; God’s Own County is of course implied. North Hampshire is a dreary district many dismal leagues distant.

    Cack (noun and verb) were the favoured taboo terms when I was 7 or 8, shit (shat, etc) being much stronger. These were the mid-1960s, when one of my classmates got the cane for calling a teacher ‘a nit’ – a term so innocuous it seems to have disappeared.

    When Drake captured the Spanish ship the Cagafuego (meaning “shitfire” or “fireshitter”) the name was supposedly cleaned up in English translation, becoming the Spitfire. A name borne by many RN ships, and then a ‘plane you may have heard of.

  7. The ‘cack-handed’ Kerrs are a famous Scottish Border family. By repute they were mostly left handed and therefore the spiral staircases of their castles were built anti-clockwise. This would give the advantage to the left handed defender in a sword fight.

  8. “Cack” of course comes from the Dutch – kakk meaning shit. Poppycock = pappe kakk, or soft shit.

  9. What a lively discussion. It’s a relief [pun intended] that nobody is talking ‘cack’ which, as some have noted, is still very much alive, see here. https://www.lexico.com/definition/cack, which has a good note on the origin.

    The OED notes the noun as obsolete, but that’s because it’s an unupdated (1888) entry.

  10. I’m working on an epithet for right-handed, whose meaning I’ll then try and extend to mean incompetent, socially insensitive, etc.

  11. And to cack your kecks is of course to bewray your breeches.

  12. ‘Caggy handed’ is a widespread variant.

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