My dad always reckoned we had the Elsden conk – not that we had large or odd or particularly shaped noses, but we did have an acute sense of smell. Conk in this case means ‘nose’, not ‘head’ because the word can be used in both ways, to be hit on the conk could be on the head or the nose, but to be conked out would be made unconscious by a blow. I’ve looked up conk, and it was used from the beginning of the nineteenth century – or at least first recorded then, meaning nose, and then conked would be hit on the nose. After WW1 another use for it was recorded, from the early airmen of the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force) was when an engine failed it conked out.
Back to the Elsden conk; I remember visiting Dad’s brother and he had detected an unusual odour which his wife couldn’t smell at all. I was enlisted to help track it down and I remember he and I wandering around sniffing like bloodhounds until we found a water leak in an awkward place, invisible to the eye. I thought about this today as we had a peculiar smell in the house. Not bad or awful, just strange and I went on the hunt for what was causing it. I traced it to the cubbyhole under the stairs but although I took everything out, and everything off the shelf, I still couldn’t find what it was. I thought something might have spilled, but there was no trace of anything. I took all the coats, jackets and shopping bags out but still couldn’t find it. It’s drifted away now, so maybe it was just the boggart cooking something peculiar.
Just reading through what I’ve written and I paused to wonder the origin of ‘cubby’. That’s a very old word, first noted as cubbyhole in the 1820’s, but the ‘cub’ part probably dating back another three hundred years to a word meaning a little stall or pen or coop. There are similar words in East Friesian and Dutch, so it may have come from across the North Sea as many old words have. Maybe the Elsden conk has failed on this occasion, but at least I know where the word comes from now – and cubbyhole!