Jane's "nidgetty" cap
Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra are filled with irreverent humor. In December 1798, Cassandra was visiting family in Godmersham and Jane was at home in Steventon and she wrote to her sister the following:
I took the liberty a few days ago of asking your black velvet bonnet to lend me its cawl, which it very readily did, and by which I have been enabled to give a considerable improvement of dignity to cap, which was before too nidgetty to please me.
Cassandra had given Jane advice on how to ornament her cap, but Jane writes to say she's going in another direction. But what does "nidgetty" mean?
The OED says that it has an uncertain origin and likely means trifling. Can a hat be trifling? I guess, if Jane meant "not important enough looking."
Some people say that Jane invented the word nidgetty, but after a little digging, I find that unlikely, mostly because nidget was a word. It meant a fool, so nidgetty might've meant foolish rather than trifling. Jane may have been one of the first to write it down, but she wasn't the first to use it. I found two sources from the 1770s and 1780s with silly poems repeating the lines 'fidgety, nidgetty, mum', so as much as I love to credit Jane, I don't think she invented nidgetty.
In southern England---like Hampshire and Kent---a nidget was also a farming implement. A nidget was a plow, a "horse hoe" with triangles fixed horizontally at the end of tines fastened on a triangular frame.
We don't know what kind of cap Jane was talking about, but capotes were popular in the 1790s--early 1800s. They were loose fitting, small hats set on the back of the head tied with ribbons under the chin. There's certainly an angular vibe from this side view of a capote from 1794-1798.
Does it make the most sense that Jane invented the word nidgetty to mean that her cap was trifling. Probably not.
I think it more likely Jane Austen thought her plain cap looked foolish or, worse, she thought it looked like a farming implement.
Remember how Jane was going against Cassandra's advice on trimming the cap? She later writes at the end of the same letter that:
I have changed my mind, and changed the trimmings of my cap this morning; they are now such as you suggested. I felt as if I should not prosper if I strayed from your directions, and I think it makes me look more like Lady Conyngham now than it did before, which is all that one lives for now.
Jane may not have coined the word nidgetty, but she certainly is clever and funny. What do you think she meant about her cap?
Every time I type nidgetty, autocorrect tries to make it fidgety and every time I type nidget it becomes midget. This post took a looong time to type!