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.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

More Bad Boys

More Bad Boys

Last week’s entry on hooligans, hoodlums & thugs doesn’t begin to account for all the terms we use for our bad boys, so here are three more, all from Old French: rascal, miscreant, & villain.

The term rascal comes from the early 1500s, from a word meaning outcast, rabble, or the lowest class. Many etymologists suggest that the original term comes from an older form which was the grandmother of the term rash, meaning mud, filth, scab or dregs. Those early fifteenth century rascals really had it bad. Since the late 1500s, the term has meant dishonest, unprincipled, &/or lazy, which may be negative, but at least it doesn’t involve nasty skin conditions.

A miscreant, on the other hand, is lacking in spiritual understanding (or so suggest those applying the label). Miscreant comes form mes- meaning wrong & -creant meaning believe, defined originally in English as infidel, unbelieving, or heretic. Early on in its life as a French word, it simply meant heathen. Today in English, miscreant has the broader meaning, evil or immoral.

Villain, like rascal, was originally a term used to define someone of the lower class, someone base, low-born or rustic. The word villain is related to villa, or country house (which, interestingly, now carries a high class tone). Though starting out meaning inhabitant of a farm, the term morphed into meaning peasant, churl, boor, clown, knave or scoundrel. It wasn’t until 1822 that villain was associated specifically with the bad boys of literature.

So, my few & trusty followers, please consider commenting on the class warfare reflected by these etymologies, or offer thoughts about these three coming from Old French (though last week’s hoodlum, hooligan and thug had more widespread roots). Also, could you suggest some other synonyms for rascals, miscreants & villains?

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

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.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


The word read has come a long way, baby.

The primary definition we know today – “to understand the meaning of written symbols” appears to have been born in Old English, though its roots go much further back. I find it fascinating that read’s original meanings all funneled their way through Old English, but still magically apply to our modern understanding of the word read.

The Old Irish root meant “to deliberate or consider,” and the Sanskrit grandmother of read meant “to succeed or accomplish.” Old Norse, Old Frisian, Dutch & German meant “to counsel, advise, or guess.” One must be particularly appreciative of words with meanings as disparate as advise & guess. Those Old Frisians, Germans & Dutch folk may have been trickier than we might imagine. 

I see all kinds of tweaky present-day applications for these meanings of read’s ancestors. In a blatant attempt to garner a couple extra comments, I’ll ask you, dear followers & guests, to please comment, explaining the connections you see between these ancestral meanings & our present understanding of the word read.

-to deliberate
-to consider
-to succeed
-to accomplish
-to counsel
-to advise
-to guess

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,, & the OED.

Thursday, December 1, 2011



It used to be that a novel’s inciting incident came thirty or forty pages in, after the reader had settled into the world of the novel, met the major characters, & gotten a feel for whatever the norm was in the protagonist’s life. Over the years, the inciting incident has inched closer & closer to the beginning of the novel, so that now it’s not surprising at all (especially in teen lit) to discover the inciting incident on page one. We live in a world of immediacy – but that is another post.

The word incite came to English in the 1400s through Middle French (enciter) which came from Latin (incitare – to put into rapid motion). The in- can mean in, on, into or upon, while the –citare means to rouse, instigate, stimulate, urge, stir or encourage.

So while a novel’s inciting incident puts the story into rapid motion, the story as a whole incites much more. The year Carol Plum-Ucci’s compelling novel What Happened to Lani Garver first hit the stands, one of my 8th graders plowed through the book in a night, then rushed into my class the next morning, clutching the book to her heart and exhorting, “This book changed the way I see the world.” Wow. There’s a novel that did some inciting.

Few authors expect to incite that sort of internal riot, but most of us do dream of inciting something: the heart, the head, the aspirations, political awareness, action, reverie, appreciation, humor...

Good followers, what sort of inciting do you hope to do with your novels?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, the OED,, &