Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bad Boys

Bad Boys

Fiction often depends on the villainy of the villain, and there are so many great terms to refer to those villains. Here are some of my favorites:

Hooligan – Though there is definitely some disagreement among the etymologists on this one, most seem to lean toward the theory that hooligan is one more slur against the oft-maligned Irish. It’s likely that a family by the name of Houlighan (one of the spellings of Hoolihan) was giving the police a tough time in London before the 1890s, about the time the derogatory term we now know first appeared in print.

Hoodlum – Though a theory exists that hoodlum is actually another Irish name, Muldoon, flipped backward (noodlum) and mistakenly read by a San Francisco typesetter, most etymologists lean toward a Bavarian root for this word. One possibility is huddellump, a ragamuffin. Another contender is the term hydelum, meaning disorderly. The Bavarian argument generally wins out, since in 1870s San Francisco, Germans were one of the larger non-English speaking groups in the City by the Bay, and it’s no secret that, whether right or wrong, those who don’t fit in tend to be suspected of evildoing.

Thug – The oldest (and possibly most honest) of these three villainous terms, thug showed up in English about 1810, originating in Hindi (thaq, meaning cheat or swindler), which may have come from a Sanskrit word meaning cunning and fraudulent. The moniker was adopted by a powerful gang in fourteenth century India known for brutally strangling travellers and passersby.

What other beautiful words are out there to describe the bad boys (or bad gals) in our stories? I’m hoping to collect some intriguing ones from your comments this week. Comment on!

My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words,, & the OED.


  1. I just love these. I had some suspicions that "hooligan" contained some anti-Irish sentiment, but I had no idea that "hoodlum" was Bavarian for lowlife scum, or that "thugs" have been around since Alexander the Great.

  2. These are great! Who knew? Well...I quess you did! I think the only name I have ever used is "bad guy", not very interesting or original. Not much fun to research either.

  3. Hey Christine & Anne,
    Actually, I bet both BAD & GUY have somewhat intriguing etymologies. May you both avoid the lowlife scum, thugs, & anti-Irish slurs this holiday season.

  4. Why oh why did I not read this post while I was still at Los Osos Middle? I love the word "huddellump" and definitely would have used it in private conversation with you and other word-loving teachers. We knew and loved so many huddellumps over the years. Now I never come across little huddellumps. I'm storing it, though, just in case.