From James Joyce's Ulysses:

By inserting the barrel of an arruginated male key in the hole of an unstable female lock, obtaining a purchase on the bow of the key and turning its wards from right to left, withdrawing a bolt from its staple, pulling inward spasmodically an obsolescent unhinged door and revealing an aperture for free egress and free ingress.

I admit that I've seen this word for the first time "thanks" to an Internet troll, who, as part of spamming a website with their obscene garbage, claimed their fingers are "arruginated" and they need to see a doctor because of this condition; then they proceeded with some inappropriate wordplay, with the punchline being the above quotation from Ulyssess.

I'm mentioning this only because I wonder if this troll didn't use this word in some precise meaning? Or was it only a meaningless gibberish? Is there any precise meaning to this word? The word is not included in any dictionary I can find—not even Wiktionary or the OED.

What does "arruginated" mean? What did James Joyce mean when he was writing it? What does a modern person mean when they use this word?

  • 1
    Rusty male key!
    – user 66974
    Nov 28, 2017 at 12:32
  • 2
    @user159691 ‘Rusty’ would have been my guess as well—that’s what it sounds like it should mean. There’s ferruginated, which is somewhat similar (though the less similar ferruginous is closer in meaning). Nov 28, 2017 at 12:38
  • 1
    It means that Joyce was fond of twisting the English language.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 28, 2017 at 13:01
  • 7
    Indeed, this is Joyce having fun with the language - see also "quarks", a word invented in Finnegan's Wake, which provided inspiration to Murray Gell-Mann, who came up with the name for the particles after reading "Three quarks for muster Mark". Nov 28, 2017 at 14:36
  • 4
    I've upvoted all the answers so far; I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Joyce was hoping to evoke rusty, wrinkled, worn out, and friction-y (and heck, maybe rockets, as in the presumed Italian origin for arugula, too) all at once.
    – 1006a
    Nov 28, 2017 at 23:26

6 Answers 6


Nice one, as the word seems indeed obscure at best.

A bit of googling revealed a wordsmith.org discussion where user Homo Loquens mentions finding a definition:

arruginated on the pattern of rugine + ar- prefix variant spelling of ad- assimilated before r (as in arrive, arrogate).
v. t. [F. ruginer to scrape.] To scrape or rasp, as a bone;
to scale. [R.] --Wiseman.
n. [F.] (Surg.) An instrument for scraping the periosteum from bones; a aspatory.

To which he adds:

as a back-reference to earlier mention of the key:
The key scraped round harshly twice and, when the heavy door had been set ajar, welcome light and bright air entered.
Telemachus, Ulysses

This would indicate that it is an English adaptation of a French word. Said user gives no clear source for his definition ("a Joyce reader"), which is a pity.

If this definition holds any water, then the meaning would be closer to a well-worn male key than the proposed rusted key.

  • 6
    @UncertainWhatNameToPickHere Thanks, it is merely the result of some frantic googling after a question that really upset me. After all, it should not be too difficult to look up what a word means, especially not any word from a standard work in English literature - and yet, there it is...
    – oerkelens
    Nov 28, 2017 at 12:52
  • 1
    @oerkelens On the contrary, Joyce wrote about Ulysses: "If I gave it all up immediately, I'd lose my immortality. I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." This word is just one such enigma. Nov 29, 2017 at 15:46
  • 2
    Since the word in question is a nonce word, of many that Joyce made up out of bits of nothing from many languages, any explanation is going to be speculative. That said, I don't see how you get 'well-worn' if the context shows that the key scrapes a lot. That would lead one to believe that it is more raspy than smooth.
    – Mitch
    Nov 30, 2017 at 13:33
  • 2
    @Mitch In the context of the quote, the word is used in past-tense, as in it has already been arruginated. I would think if it were scraping the inside of the lock it would be arruginating? So perhaps it was a key that had been scraped/worn thoroughly already?
    – thanby
    Nov 30, 2017 at 21:08
  • 1
    @thanby The point is that the context is not clear one way or the other, one could speculate and make a case for either smooth or raspy. Since Joyce is well-known for making up words from other languages, the 'arruginato' = 'rusty' angle seems much more compelling.
    – Mitch
    Nov 30, 2017 at 22:21

I don't know if it is legitimate English, but in Italian "arrugginito" means "rusty" and "ruggine" means "rust" (=oxidized iron).

Referred to a key, it must mean rusty, or "working with lot of friction".

The etymology is, either from Latin "rubiginem" (rubeus=red) or "aeruginem" (copper oxide, which is greenish instead). The latter is also supported from the former link.

See also here (Italian, sorry).

  • 8
    I'd like to add that Joyce spent a decade in Trieste/Trst/Triest, then a part of Austrian Empire, teaching English. In those years he planned (and started writing?) the Ulysses.
    – gboffi
    Nov 28, 2017 at 15:12

Another possible interpretation, according to the following source, is from the term ruga, an anatomical term meaning wrinkle, on the idea of a "corrugated" old key:

  • I have no literary support for this, but I believe I can offer insight into what arruginated means. The word "ruga" or its more common plural form "rugae" means in medicine "an anatomical fold or wrinkle especially of the viscera." The lining of the stomach is full of little ridges called rugae.

  • The word's relation to the more commonly-encountered "corrugated" should be obvious to this community. I believe that Joyce was describing the appearance of an old-fashioned key, which would have had teeth that were cut in a series of ridges or rugae, with "arruginated" being to rugae as "irradiated" is to radiation.

  • This makes sense because of Joyce's use of the word "corrugated" in the episode. Gifford notes that Odysseus's brow is "corrugated" when he sees the state of his palace, and Bloom shows the same reaction when he sees the betting tickets.


  • 5
    This was my guess just from the title of the question, by cognate from Spanish: arrugado is the Spanish for wrinkled. Nov 28, 2017 at 14:58
  • 1
    This also fits with the "claimed their fingers are 'arruginated'" bit, making it an obscure-definition joke.
    – Hellion
    Nov 28, 2017 at 17:32
  • As soon as I saw the question, I knew the answer was 'corrugated'. Thanks for writing it up so I don't need to. Dec 1, 2017 at 2:58

In an 1888 Bible with commentary1 it is stated concerning Ecclesiasticus 12:10 of the King James version:

Rather, for as the bronze is covered with rust [ = contracteth rust; Vet Lat. aeruginat]

The Latin verse is:

Non credas inimico tuo in aeternum, sicut enim aeramentum aeruginat nequitia illius

In Italian, there are two examples of "arruginate" (and other examples with the double-g spelling):


Perchè serve tutto ad ungere le arruginate ruote della Capitale che ancora non puo camminare.

and second3:

Onde si pensava, e si pensa ancora da qualcuno, che l'azione riformatrice di un Ministro possa limitarsi, riuscendo egualmente proficua, a quelle parti e a quelle ruote ritenute, per universale consenso, invecchiate o arruginate e debba, anche in questa modesta funzione ortopedica, procedere con quella gradualità che nel regno della natura evita i salti

Note also that The Soft Beauty of the Latin Word'': Experiencing Latin in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man says:

Joyce freely integrates Latin intersententially and intrasententially...

This paper also refers to Joyce "adulterating" Latin and singles out Ecclesiasticus as a source of Joyce's Latin.

Overall, I think "corroded" or "rusted" is the meaning of "arruginated".

1 Frederic Cook ed Henry Wace, pub J Murray 1888
2 La Frusta: giornale politico morale, 1871, Vol 2, p83
3 La nuova scuola italiana rivista magistrale settimanale

  • Interesting; a deformation of Latin "aerugino" seems fairly plausible
    – herisson
    Nov 28, 2017 at 17:42
  • The modern version of that word in Italian is arrugginite; that should return a lot more results. Nov 28, 2017 at 20:16
  • @FedericoPoloni what does "benchè s'ingegni di portarle arrugginate ed ottuse, quanto mai può, nel suo racconto" mean? books.google.com/… and books.google.com/…
    – DavePhD
    Nov 28, 2017 at 20:52
  • I'm not a professional translator, but I'll try my best: "even though he tries with all his wits to depict them [two powerful arguments, described earlier as metaphorical "weapons"] as rusty (arruginate) and blunt, as much as possible, in his report". Nov 28, 2017 at 21:33
  • I've added citations here: if you know the publisher and year of number 3, please do edit that in.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 1, 2017 at 7:39

Taking a look at several languages (Basque , Catalan, Italian, Esperanto, Romansh, etc) as well as original Latin I would say "grooved": a ruga is a wrinkle or furrow (implying a worn-in depression) from the Latin, so for me the most apposite meaning for an arruginated key indicates a key worn with use so as to develop grooves, though it could also mean that the metal had developed a bumpy texture (the wrinkled aspect of the word) due to old age: some very old keys develop a bumpyness related to oxidisation and subsequent wearing of the oxides off the main body, usually indicates a high iron content in the item.


In line with previous entries, I suggest Joyce coined 'arruginated' from the Italian 'arruginito' meaning 'rusty' which, in turn implies 'out of use'. That fits - no pun intended - the sexual context of the word's use as male key, which it is, inserted in a female lock, ditto. A clever, metaphorical play on words once again from Joyce about Bloom's sexual frustration.

The Italian definition is from my personal English-Italian Dictionary, 1973, Nicola Zanichellei SpA, Bologna.

  • Hi Roger, welcome to EL&U. -1: I don't think this adds anything to this existing answer that you couldn't have instead posted as a comment, once you had acquired the points and user privilege to do so. You can easily earn these points by posting good answers (each upvote earns you 10 pts) or questions (upvotes earn 5 pts). I hope to see a good Q or A from you soon! Meanwhile, see How to Answer for further guidance, and take the EL&U Tour. :-) May 24, 2019 at 7:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.