Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Stab at Equality

A Stab at Equality

All badness does not belong to the boys. Though a quick survey of Disney movies suggests that nearly all antagonists are women (generally stepmothers), the language itself clearly leans more toward male malefactors. This final installment of antagonistic labels include two that initially referred to bad gals and one that referred to bad guys who employed women and soiled their reputations. Oddly, usage for all three has leaned over the years toward the boys.

Rapscallion is a term now associated with males, but it appears to have started with the Middle English term ramp, or ill-behaved woman. Many etymologists believe the grandmother word for ramp is romp, a rude, awkward, boisterous, untaught girl. The similarity with rascal is probably responsible for this word’s gender identity shift.

The term hussy has maintained its gender-associations, though somewhere along the way, this perfectly upstanding word moved to the dark side. In the 1500s Hussy was a respectable synonym for housewife or goodwife and had no negative connotation. The term shameless hussy originated in these times, with shameless modifying the perfectly upright term hussy. By the 1600s, though, hussy began to mean a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior. Since then, it’s been downhill for the word hussy.

When the business of women exhibiting casual or improper behavior was “managed” by a man, that man was referred to in Middle Latin as a ruffian, or pimp. Interestingly (& frighteningly) enough, the term ruffian appears to share some etymological roots with words meaning lover, brother, & bully. We can still see a tiny part of this odd history in the phrase Bully for you, in which the term bully maintains its positive meaning.

Life can be pretty weird & language reflects life’s weirdness.

What thoughts do you have, good followers, regarding ruffians, hussies & rapscallions?

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


  1. So a rapscallion is female! I'm so glad. I'd much rather be a rapscallion than a hussy. Or a ruffian for that matter. Why is it that ruffians are always "rude"? Pimp, brother, lover and bully--sounds like a recipe for a toxic boyfriend.

  2. My personal definition: Hussy: a woman who knows what she wants and follows through in a non-conforming way.

  3. Hey Anne & River,
    Recipe for a toxic boyfriend -- hmm, Anne, sounds like the title for a novel. And, River, I'm all for custom re-definitions of words. I had to re-define the word wordmonger to make it work for this site.
    Thanks to both of you for dropping by.