June 30, 2015

Words of the Month - Of Vandals and Villains

        Many of our words for ignorant barbarians derive from previous generations of prejudice.  In particular there are two categories of prejudice that have given us quite a handful of excellent words with which to insult the uncultured, ignorant slobs in our lives.  First, classical Rome’s xenophobic condescension for all people who weren’t Roman (or Greek).

vandal - a person who willfully or ignorantly destroys or mars public or private property.
This is a Latinized form of the name of the tribe that sacked Rome in 455.  There is no evidence that they were particularly willful or wanton in their destruction, but you can certainly understand why the Romans would have had a prejudice against them.

goth and hun, other non-Roman groups of people, acquired similar meanings for similar reasons in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, although they’re no longer commonly used to mean “rude or uncivilized person, savage despoiler.”  (The current meaning of goth as a member of the black-clad subculture dates from 1986 but comes by way of the Victorian sense of Gothic in architecture and literature.)

barbarian - from Latin for “foreign country”, from Greek meaning “foreign, strange, ignorant,” this word comes from a Proto-Indo-European root echoic of unintelligible speech of foreigners, cognate with babble.  Foreigners, in other words, are the people who say “blab blab blab,” and who, in the Greek and Roman opinion, are ignorant, uncultured, and savage.

        The next group of insults betray class prejudice.  There are an awful lot of words for non-noble people who no doubt began poor but honest, but ended up becoming stupid louts.

boor - originally “herdsman” or “farmer,” in English the word was first applied to agricultural laborers from other lands, as opposed to our good English stock, so this word involves the intersection of both classism and xenophobia.

villain - from Latin for “farmhand”

churl - from Old English “peasant, freeman without rank”

        And finally, here are a few other words whose negative meanings betray the prejudices of society.

philistine - used since about 1600 to mean “enemy” (usually humorously), the more common meaning “uncultured person” was borrowed from German university slang in 1827.  It refers to the people who, in the Bible, were neighbors and enemies of the Israelites.  (Goliath was a Philistine.)

hooligan - appearing in usage in 1898 as a comic stereotypical Irish character (probably a variant of the Irish surname Houlihan), it tells us exactly the sort of stereotypes the Irish were given in the late nineteenth century.

cretin - this word derives from a Swiss French dialect word for “Christian,” but it isn’t prejudice against Christians that gives it its derogatory meaning “stupid, obtuse, or boorish person.”  In fact, the term was meant to be kind, a reminder that those suffering from impairment of physical and mental growth due to congenital hypothyroidism are people, too.  However, like many other words for people with intellectual disabilities, (such as moron, idiot, retard) it eventually lost its clinical or technical sense in favor of simple insult.

        As we’ve seen before (for example, here, here, and here), every time we open our mouths we reveal our attitudes in the words we choose and the ways we use them.  And language retains the attitudes of past generations - sometimes for hundreds of years!  I don’t advocate getting offended by lingering linguistic traces of the bad attitudes of previous generations of speakers, but it’s always worth it to be aware of where we’ve come from and what baggage might have stuck along the journey.

[Pictures: Attila the Hun, woodcut by anonymous artist, no information for source or date (Image from Bridgeman Images);
David and Goliath, wood block print by Virgil Solis, mid 16th century (Image from Pitts Theology Library).]

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