By Anatoly Liberman
Scalawag, whose origin is (predictably) “uncertain,” seems to have surfaced in American English, which does not mean that it was coined in America. Its earliest recorded sense (“a favorite epithet in western New York for a mean fellow, a scapegrace”) goes back to 1848. Many people must have known it at that time, but its heyday had to wait until after the Civil War, when it swept over the country as a buzz word applied to native white southern Republicans. Consequently, scalawags should not be confused with carpetbaggers, northern men who came South after the war for economic, political, and other reasons.
In the fifties of the 19th century, scalawag had the variants scallywag, scallaway (as we will see, a form of some importance in the present context), and even scatterway (most probably, a fanciful alternation of scalaway). The spelling with y and two l’s was common, and it is still preferred in England, where this word enjoys much greater popularity than on the American continent, as evidenced, among others, by the clipped form scally, a competitor of the ubiquitous chav (a slang term for an asocial youth) that fortunately did not cross the Atlantic. I am pleased to report that chav is also a word of debated origin. In the 19th century, the phrase our American cousins cropped up with some regularity in British periodicals. Well, a chav is a twin brother of a scally and a cousin of a scalawag. No one has yet discovered the etymology of either denomination.
Not only a contemptible person but also an undersized, scraggy, or ill-fed animal of little value can be called a scalawag. No evidence supports the contention that scalawag was originally a drover’s word for ill-conditioned cattle, and we are still in the dark about which came first: “a mean man” or “worthless animal.” I am aware of only one ramification of the main sense. In The Nation for 1910, an anonymous reviewer of the OED wrote: “Dr. Bradley strangely neglects to remark that scallywag, like scamp (which formerly meant a ‘highway robber’), has lost much of its early savor, and is now largely employed as a term of endearment for particularly vivacious and heart-ravishing infants.” Bradley should hardly have been faulted for that omission. Almost any word meaning “rascal” can be used facetiously about a vivacious individual. Even The Century Dictionary did not say anything about heart-ravishing infants. Other sources are also silent on this point. Only The Oxford American Dictionary refers to the sense “a white southerner who collaborated with northern Republicans during Reconstruction, etc.” as historical but begins the entry with “informal a person who behaves badly but in an amusingly mischievous rather than harmful way; a rascal.” A term of political opprobrium has been ameliorated to a name for a whimsical pest. I wonder whether anyone in the United States ever uses scalawag except in jest.
The suggestions about the etymology of scalawag are few and inconclusive. There is a district in the Shetland Islands called Scalloway, in which small, runty horses are bred, and scalawag has been tentatively derived from this place name. The small port of Scalloway was once the capital of Shetland, and inferior cattle or ponies were indeed imported from the Shetland Islands. Also the existence of the short-lived variant scallaway gives this hypothesis some credence, but the history of a loanword consists of at least two chapters: identification of the etymon in a lending language and tracing its routes in the new home. Who popularized this term of cattle breeding in North America? Scallag, a Scottish Gaelic word for “vagabond; menial servant; bondsman; predial slave” in the Hebrides, looks like another probable sibling. (One of the researchers remarked “Interestingly, the Hebrides Islands are located off the northwestern coast of Scotland, not far from Shetlands”; this fact may be interesting, but the connection evades me. Are Scalloway and scallag related?). Scottish Gaelic scalrag “tatterdemalion” (still another candidate for the evasive etymon) clearly contains the same element scal- and sounds somewhat like scalawag. The fact that scalawag cropped up in western New York sheds no light on the ethnicity of those who may have brought this word to America.
A few other hypotheses are even more daring. The word schalawag occurred once in a late medieval Swiss German poem; it seems to have meant “belled shackles” (German Schellenwerk). Those were put on criminals. “A term coined to apply to a criminal and social outcast, marked by society in such a fashion as to attract attention by his every movement, the term schalawag was ideally suited to apply to the scamp, loafer, or rascal who was a post-bellum ‘scalawag’ in the South.” The match is indeed close, but who in the English speaking world knew the word that even in Germany was hopelessly rare? Finding such a person would be more difficult than belling a cat. (A reminder to those who have forgotten the tale. A young mouse suggested that it would be a good idea to put a bell on the cat’s neck; then the beast would not be able to hide. Everybody agreed, whereupon an old mouse asked who was going to do the work. Apparently, there were no volunteers.)
From the Celts and the Swiss Germans, we will briefly turn our attention to the French. By a series of phonetic steps scalawag has been connected with the root of scavenger. The adventure was entertaining but unrewarding. Dictionaries suggest Scalloway or scallag as the etymons of scalawag or say: “Of unknown/uncertain origin.” About the only exception is Ernest Weekley (An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 1921), where we find the following cryptic remark: “? From scall.” Now scall is a skin disease, so that, if we follow Weekley, scalawag will be understood as a derogatory term of the same order as scab “blackleg, non-unionist.” (From the same root as in scab we have shabby, a word that, according to Samuel Johnson,” has crept in conversation and low writing; but ought not to be admitted into the language.” A losing battle, a forlorn hope: low words always triumph in the long run.)
I think no one came closer to the solution than Weekley. He did not say anything about the second half of the word, but here I have a suggestion. Scalawag may be scal-a-wag, a formation like rag-a-muffin and cock-a-doodle-doo, a compound with -a- in the middle. Wag “a mischievous person” (originally “a mischievous boy”!) is a noun in its own right; to play the wag is slang for “play the truant.” If it could be shown that scall had sufficient currency in American English (in western New York or elsewhere), a scalawag would emerge as a scabby wag, whereas diminutive horses, predial slaves, criminals wearing bells like the lepers of old, scavengers, and their daughters will stay where they belong: in Shetlands, Hebrides, Switzerland, and France. Good riddance if you ask me.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”