Conspiracy theories are everywhere these days. Here are a few old words you can use to describe them while adjusting your tinfoil hat.
This absurd-sounding term has been around since at least the late 1500s. It arises from the now equally obscure word complot, which is used a few times in Shakespeare’s Richard II. Complotting is conspiring: You can plot on your own, but to complot, you need to be in cahoots with cohorts. A use in a 1594 book by John Dickenson captures the deceptive flavor of this term, describing “Complotted practises of bloud and reuenge.”
Trinkets are doodads and tchotchkes, but to trinket is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To have clandestine communications or underhand dealings with; to intrigue with; to act in an underhand way, prevaricate.” The etymology is a mystery, but it might be related to trick. This sense has been around since the 1600s, and you can smell outrage (and sexism) in this use from Walter Scott’s 1821 book Kenilworth: A Romance: “A woman, who trinkets and traffics with my worst foes!”
This word for a clandestine state of affairs has been around since the 1600s. Here’s a fact that should appeal to conspiracy buffs: You can’t spell clandestinity without destiny. Spooky, right?
Like so many nouns, cabal has been verbed. An 1866 use from Cornhill Magazine will give you new appreciation for the duplicity and intrigue of convents: “That petty partisanship and caballing which are the curse of convents.”
Reduplicative words rule, but this one rules in secrecy. Since the 1500s, to be in hugger-mugger has meant “to keep secret or concealed; to hush up,” according to the OED. Alternate spellings include hocker-mocker and huckermucker. This word can also be an adjective, especially in the phrase “hugger-mugger doings,” which are never innocent. Hugger-mugger can also be a verb with a few shhh-y meanings. An 1862 use from the New York Tribune described “Listening to key-hole revelations, and hugger-muggering with disappointed politicians.” In 1898, a Daily News article described the motivation behind many cover-ups: “For two years the City Corporation tried to hugger-mugger this nasty little incident out of sight.”
The parent of hugger-mugger is probably hudder-mudder, which has the same meaning and appeared a little earlier—in the 1400s. In a 1545 book by Roger Ascham, the sneaky meaning is invoked along with yet another alternate spelling: “It hydes it not, it lurkes not in corners and hudder mother.” Sorry, Mom.
Several senses of this word have been around since the 1600s, and one of them involves calamitous collusion. In James Heath’s 1663 book Flagellum, he described vile varmints who “never ceased plotting and conspiring, now colloguing with this party, then with that.” Iago and Loki are two classic colloguers.
This is a Spanish word for a little room—but in English, that little room or chamber can hold big, massive, gargantuan secrets, because a camarilla can also be a cabal. In R.M. Beverley’s 1839 book Heresy of a Human Priesthood, he describes “a camarilla of priests, who, with closed doors, make all the laws by which the society is regulated.” In any era, that’s kooky talk.
This is a synonym and close relative of clandestine, and has been in use since the early 1600s. OED examples describe “whisperings and clancular suggestions” and “Proceedings ... not close or clancular, but frank and open.” If you enjoyed the spy drama The Americans, you like watching clancular shenanigans.
10., 11., and 12. Dern, Dernhead, and Dernship
As far back as Old English, anything described as dern was hidden, concealed, and secretive. To keep something dern was to keep it under wraps. This meaning spawned words for secrecy such as dernhead and dernship.
13. and 14. Scuggery and Scug
Scuggery has the ring of something foul, and that stench is the scent of secrecy. Sadly, this word has never been very common, but it does have a parent found in the 1500s: scug referred to shadows or other concealment, so scuggery became the goings-on in those shadows. Scug could also be a type of pretense. Scottish author and minister Alexander Shields used the term in a 1688 lecture: “Some did boast of their pretended Performances, and do make them a scugg to hide their Knavery with.” This word deserves a revival. There are more knaves than ever these days, and they can make a scug out of anything.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.