The noun bodkin denotes a blunt large-eyed needle used for drawing tape or cord through a hem; it has also been used to denote a long pin used for fastening up the hair, and, in printing, to designate a pointed steel tool used for extracting characters when correcting metal type.
Of unknown origin, this word appeared in Middle English in the sense of a short pointed weapon.
Especially when preceded by verbs such as to ride and to sit, bodkin is also used figuratively in the sense of a person wedged in between two others where there is proper room for two only—probably with allusion to the thinness of the tools that have that name.
An isolated early figurative use of bodkin is found in The Fancies, Chast and Noble (London, 1638), by the English playwright and poet John Ford (1586-circa 1639)—Spadone has told Secco that Nitido, a young page, is having an affair with Secco’s wife, Morosa:
– Secco: Appeare Spadone, my proofes are pregnant and grosse: truth is the truth; I must and I will be divorced. speake Spadone and exalt thy voice.
– Spadone: Who I speake, alas I cannot speake I.
– Nitido: As I hope to live to be a man.
– Secco: Dambe [= obstruct] the prick of thy weason [= weasand] Pipe: where but two lie in a bed you must be Bodkin bitch-baby must ye. Spadone, am I a Cuckold or no Cuckold?
The earliest figurative use of bodkin that I have found is from an article about the fate of the members of the French counter-revolutionary forces who mounted the doomed expedition to Quiberon, Brittany, in the summer of 1795—article published in The Kentish Chronicle (Canterbury, Kent) of Friday 11th September 1795:
Among the odd vicissitudes of such men’s destiny, is the following:—Three of them were in a post chaise about a couple of months since, and were stopped by a couple of highwaymen. Not delivering their money, the highwaymen fired, and wounded two of the Frenchmen. The third, who rode bodkin, escaped, astonishingly unhurt! He and his companion, but slightly wounded, went to Quiberon, and fell!—one in the field—the other executed the day after, the third, more heavily wounded by the highwaymen, was thence incapable of going to Quiberon—and so escaped! and is now a sort of agent to the French corps in the expedition. It is the ci devant Marquis de Tourneur.
The earliest figurative use of bodkin that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED – 2nd edition, 1989) has recorded is from The Loves of the Triangles. A Mathematical and Philosophical Poem (dated 1798 in the OED), by the English diplomat and author John Hookham Frere (1769-1846) and the Anglo-Irish politician George Canning (1770-1827); this poem is a parody of The Loves of the Plants (1791), a botanical poem by the English physician, scientist, inventor and poet Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802).
However, contrary to popular—as well as learned—belief, the stanza of The Love of the Triangles in which bodkin appears was not originally published on 23rd April 1798 in The Anti-Jacobin; or Weekly Examiner (London) but was added in later editions of that periodical; the earliest occurrence that I have found of that stanza is from Volume 2 of the Fourth Edition, Revised and Corrected (London, 1799) of that issue of The Anti-Jacobin:
So down thy hill, romantic Ashbourn, glides,
The Derby Dilly*, carrying Three Insides.
One in each corner sits, and lolls at ease
With folded arms, propt back, and outstretch’d knees;
While the press’d Bodkin, punch’d and squeez’d to death,
Swets [sic] in the mid-most place, and pants for breath.
* The word dilly is an abbreviation of diligence, a word borrowed from French denoting a public stagecoach; diligence is apparently an abbreviation of carrosse de diligence, literally coach of speed.