Furcifer: A yoke-bearer; a fork-user; a rascal or scoundrel. From Latin furca, a fork.
Furcifer is archaic enough to be ignored by the online OED, which gives definitions only for some of its relatives (furcate: to divide into branches; furciferous: descriptive of certain butterflies that bear a forked process). Furcifer’s heyday was the early 17th century, when English travelers to the Continent noticed that the Italians used a curious pronged implement at table. One of those travelers, Thomas Coryat (or Coryate), visited Italy around 1608, when forks were virtually nonexistent in England. He wrote about this odd custom at some length in a book published in 1611.*
Bee Wilson tells Coryate’s story in Consider the Fork (2012), her informative and amusing “history of how we cook and eat”:
The typical Italian, noted Coryate, “cannot endure to have his dish touched with the fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not clean alike.” Although it seemed strange to him at first, Coryate acquired the habit himself and continued to use a fork for meat on his return to England. His friends—who included the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Dunne—in their “merry humour” teased him for this curious Italian habit, calling him “furcifer” (which meant “fork-holder,” but also “rascal”). Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her fingers instead, finding the spearing motion to be crude.
In the 1970s, real men were said not to eat quiche. In the 1610s, they didn’t use forks. “We need no forks to make hay with our mouths, to throw our meat into them” noted the poet Nicholas Breton in 1618.
Breton was on the wrong side of English history. “By 1700,” Wilson writes, “ a hundred years after Coryate’s trip to Italy, forks were accepted throughout Europe. Even Puritans used them. … Not wanting to dirty your fingers with food, or to dirty food with your fingers, had become the polite thing to do.”
In an untitled article about the history of forks published in The House Furnishing Reviewin 1897, the anonymous author provides additional background on furcifer:
Furcifer literally meant, in Latin, a slave who for punishment of some fault was made to carry a fork or gallows upon his neck through the city with his hands tied. Hence it came to signify generally a rogue or villain.
* The book’s full and splendid title is Coryat’s Crudities, Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Months’ Travels in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhaetia (commonly called the Grison’s Country), Helvetia (alias Switzerland), Some Parts of High Germany and the Netherlands.