Word Histories


Last June, during the trial of a reputed Mafia mobster, defense lawyers characterized the prosecution witnesses, all former associates of the defendant’s, as “scurrilous scoundrels.” According to one source, scoundrel (a rascal, villain) has its origin in the Old Scots scowner (to shrink back, flinch), which is related to scun, the Scots variant of shun. This became scunner, meaning both “to loathe, get a feeling of disgust” (“Men scunner... at their Meat, being conveyed to them thro’ and in such Vessels”—James Fraser, The Lawfulness and Duty of Separation, 1704) and “one who causes disgust” (“Her—a black ugly lookin’ scunner”— W. D. Latto, Tammas Bodkin, 1864). The second meaning was reinforced by the addition of the -el suffix. A d was then inserted in scunnerel, imparting further spoken emphasis (as in thunder,; from the earlier thunor). Most authorities, however, are critical of this theory, because they find the sound changes implausible. They suggest instead that scoundrel is from the Latin ex (out of) and condere (to put away), which yielded the Old French escondre (to hide, evade). The word was brought to England by the Normans in the twelfth century. From the Anglo-French escoundre, presumably, came escoundrel or scoundrel, “one who absconds; a sneaky, untrustworthy person.” Although the phonology of this theory is more plausible, it, too, is considered dubious, for scoundrel did not appear in English until the late sixteenth century, long after Anglo-French had died out in England.


After the Republican Party took its uncompromising antiabortion stand last summer, the former senator and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater predicted that the Republican convention would “go down in a shambles” and that Bush would lose the election. The prehistoric root of shambles (a scene of disorder or ruin) is *skabh-, which, surprisingly, means “to prop up, support.” From this came the Latin scamnum (bench) and its diminutive scamellum, which through the West Germanic languages appeared in Old English as sceamel (stool; footstool) and in Middle English as shamil (“Heghis [high is] the lord oure god, and loutis [low is] the shamyll of his fete: for it is haly”—Richard Hampole, Psalter, before 1340). “Stool” was broadened to “table,” and then the word came to mean specifically “a table or counter for selling meat.” By the fifteenth century schamil had become shambles, which referred more generally to a meat market (“The vii. day of March [1549] a bucher of sent [Saint] Nicolas shambulles was put on the pyllery”—Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London, 1556) or slaughterhouse (“I . . . fat no beasts / To feede the shambles” —Ben Jonson, Volpone, 1605). Shambles then came to be used figuratively for any scene of carnage or wholesale slaughter (“I’ve fear’d him, since his iron heart endured / To make of Lyons one vast human shambles”—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Fall of Robespierre, 1794). It was not until the 1920s that the current, comparatively mild meaning appeared.


When the news media printed unsubstantiated and unflattering reports about President George Bush’s private life last summer, Vice President Dan Quayle attacked “the bad journalists of America” and went on to define “good journalism” as “taking . . . gossip and going out and . . . finding out if it’s true.” Gossip (rumor-mongering; one who engages in rumormongering) is from the Old English godsibb, a compound of god (originally from the IndoEuropean root *gheu-, “to call, invoke”; the Romance languages, in contrast, derive their words for god from the IndoEuropean root *deiw-, “to shine; sky”) and sib (related by blood, as in “sibling”; originally from the Indo-European root *seu-, “we, our, ourselves”). Godsibb thus meant “one who is related by spiritual contract”—that is, “a godfather or godmother” (“He ... hadde laft scole and wente at hom to bord with my gossyb dwellyng in oure toun”—Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, ca. 1395). Altered to gossip by the sixteenth century, the word kept this meaning (“Christen Gossippes . . . those men and women that have bene Godfathers and Godmothers together of one childe at Babtisme” —Thomas Becon, Acts of Christ and of Antichrist, 1563) but also could refer more generally to a friend, usually female (“She is to her Gossypes gone to make mery”— Thomas Ingelend, The Disobedient Child, ca. 1560), or a person, also usually female, who engages in idle or trifling talk. Much later, in the nineteenth century, it came to mean as well the idle or unrestrained talk itself (“A kind of travelling gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house”—Washington Irving, Sketch Book, 1820).