Where Does ‘Rigmarole’ Come From?

Edward I // Wikimedia Commons
Edward I // Wikimedia Commons / Edward I // Wikimedia Commons

Rigmarole means complicated, bothersome nonsense, so it might seem that, like gobbledygook, kerfuffle, to-do, and blabbityblab, the word’s origin is onomatopoeic or fanciful. But there is a story behind rigmarole that goes back to a 13th century list of names known as the Ragman Roll.

Edward I of England, also known as Hammer of the Scots, forced members of the Scottish nobility to swear fealty to him by signing oaths of allegiance that were collected on a number of parchments that together made up what came to be called the Ragman Roll (or Ragman Rolls, or Ragman’s Roll). Why Ragman? There’s some disagreement about that. It may contain a Scandinavian root related to cowardice (in Icelandic ragmenni means coward). Or it could go back to a medieval word for the devil.

Ragman was also the name of a game where a scroll of parchment had strings hanging from it that pointed to various (likely bawdy) verses in the scroll. Players would choose a string to find their verse, and it would be read out to the entertainment of all.

Over time ragman roll, for a long roll of parchment full of “nonsense,” eventually became rigmarole, a long, unnecessarily time-consuming hassle. No doubt a word that has always been useful.