“This Horse pictur’d showes that our Tatter-de-mallian Did ride the French Hackneyes and lye with th’ Italian.”
So wrote Ben Johnson in his 1611 book Introductory Verses in Coryat’s Crudities. It refers to “a person in tattered clothing; a ragged or beggarly fellow; a ragamuffin” (OED, Vol.XVII, p.664). The word is also found written as tatterdemalion or tatterdemallion.
The first part of the word, tatter, seems to derive from the hypothesised Old Norse word *taturr, which appears in Icelandic as toturr, and Norwegian dialects as totra. The Old French variation is taterles meaning “rags.” In fact, all these versions refer to rags, scraps, and jagged items.
The second part is thought to be a derivative of the Old French, maillot, which refers to swaddling clothes or simply long clothes, according to Spiers and Surenne’s 1863 French and English pronouncing dictionary. Thus, you get the whole flavor of someone in tattered and torn clothes.
It isn’t a dead word – just not used very often. It scores an admirable 95,900 ghits and James Joyce was happy to toss it into his Ulysses when he said, “Florry Talbot, a blond feeble goosefat whore in a tatterdemalion gown of mildewed strawberry, lolls spreadeagle in the sofa corner, her limp forearm pendent over the bolster, listening.”
Tatterdemalion is also the name of a Marvel comic character, who, according to Marvel’s official website, “Wears Kevlar body armor underneath his outfit. His outfit is coated with a substance that makes it difficult to hold the Tatterdemalion. He has specially designed gloves treated with solvent which dissolves paper and fabrics.”
The OED offers the word tatterdemalionism as a nonce word, which appeared in print in an 1887 edition of Blackwood Magazine in the sentence, “His coat was out at both elbows – it was a kind of defiant tatterdemalionism that the Colonel liked to hug.” It is certainly noncy (occurring, used, or made only once or for a special occasion) and only scrapes together 131 ghits – many of which are simply spam fillers or references to this particular example.
So next time you’re late for a meeting and rush in looking bedraggles, try confusing your colleagues with “So sorry, please excuse my tatterdemalian appearance.” I dare you.