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Unpleasant People. Part 2: Scoundrel


By Anatoly Liberman

Like culprit, discussed last week, scoundrel surfaced in English books in the modern period. The OED has no citations of it prior to 1589. Given this date, an etymologist faces familiar questions. A borrowing from Scandinavian or Old French should theoretically have turned up in texts long before the end of the 16th century (for example, rascal, from French, was current already in 1330), while if it is a native coinage, one might expect some ties with other native words, but those are questionable, to say the least. However, names for all kinds of despicable characters often originate in such obscure slang that we have no chance of discovering their sources. The 15th and 16th centuries were rich in so-called canting words, as evidenced, among many others, by the history of Engl. rogue. Some such words exist “underground” for hundreds of years before they become known to the rest of the world and make their way into print. This is what may have happened to German Schurke “villain” and Engl. punk. All in all, scoundrel, in which only the suffix is transparent (compare wastrel), will probably defy our efforts and remain a word of “uncertain origin.”

The earliest conjecture about the derivation of scoundrel belongs to Stephen Skinner, the author of an excellent etymological dictionary (1671; it appeared posthumously). Naturally, his scholarship reflected the state of the art reached by roughly 1650, but Skinner was a resourceful and circumspect philologist and made many interesting suggestions. He cited Italian scondaruolo “blindman’s buff” (misprinted as scondamolo); hence “a hider.” The connection is not good: a scoundrel’s most conspicuous feature would not have been his hiding from the law. But the root of scondaruolo is the same as in abscond, from Old French, from Latin (abs- is a variant of ab “away,” and condere means “put together, stow”). The OED would have agreed to trace scoundrel to Anglo-French escondre “abscond,” but for the late date of its first occurrence. Even if we dismiss scondaruolo as not related directly to scoundrel, we should admire Skinner for coming so close to what may have been the right solution.

With minor amusing variations (for instance, a scoundrel is one, “who, conscious of his baseness, hides himself”: are scoundrels habitually torn by remorse?), Skinner’s etymology occupied a place of honor until the appearance of Skeat’s dictionary (1882), but there was no lack of other proposals: from Old Engl. sconde “disgrace” (and scondlic “base, ignominious, disgraceful”), from scummer (scoundrel = scum), from German Schandkerl “villain” (that is, Schand-kerl; Kerl means “fellow”), and even from two Scottish Gaelic roots: sgon “bad, vile, worthless” and droil (or droll) “idler.” Those were shots in the dark. But one etymology should be quoted almost in full: “I rather take it [scoundrel] to come from the A.-S. [Anglo-Saxon] onscunian or scunian, to shun…, and to be connected with the Scotch to scouner or scunner, and the substantive scunner, one of the meanings of which given by Jamieson is an object of loathing, any person or thing which excites disgust. Scoundrel will then be scunnerel, a diminutive of scunner.” F.J.V., the author of this derivation, refers to other examples of inserted d (compare Engl. thunder and German Donner, without d). This correspondence was published in Notes and Queries for July 15, 1876.

Skeat’s dictionary put an end to the amateurish stage of English etymology. His entry on scoundrel in the first (1882) edition was long. It contained a polemical section in which he rejected the proposals of his predecessors, including Mahn (the German etymologist for Webster’s 1864 dictionary), whom he accused of inventing the word Schandkerl. Skeat, an English-speaker who never lived in Germany, must have had a great fighting spirit to impute to a native speaker of German the fabrication of a German word. Schandkerl is indeed a rare compound (in the Grimms’ multivolume dictionary, a single citation from Kleist is given), but Mahn did not produce it to bolster his derivation. Old Engl. sconde, mentioned above, is a cognate of German Schande “shame, disgrace,” so that Mahn’s idea was not even wholly original. But Skeat was right in disassociating Schandkerl from scoundrel: the word has minimal currency and does not resemble scoundrel enough to equate them, though a borrowing of such a word from German is not improbable (see the next week’s post on swindler).

This is what Skeat wrote. I’ll quote from his last (1910) edition, because he never changed his mind about this word; he only expunged the attack on his predecessors, for thirty years later their opinions no longer bothered him or anybody else. “Lit[erally] ‘a loathsome fellow.’ Aberdeensh. scoonrel; for *scun-ner-el, where -el is an agential suffix. From Lowl[and] Scotch scunner, sconner, to loathe, also (formerly) to shrink through fear, act as a coward; so that a scoonrel is one who shrinks, a coward…. The verb scunner is the frequentative of the North. form of A.-S. scun-ian, to shun; see Shun.” The asterisk before scun-ner-el means that this is a reconstructed rather than recorded form. In 1882 Skeat said: “I have no doubt that this solution, here first proposed, is the right one.” The great man allowed his temperament to get the better of his judgment. No one should say that his (or her, or their: the pronoun does not matter) solution is right. Etymology is a swamp (a morass, a quagmire), and those who do not tread gingerly there sink. Besides, scholars say no doubt, undoubtedly, and so forth only when doubts are real. A dictionary of word origins is not a book of homilies, and nothing is gained by heated rhetoric. Finally, a great danger lurks in the statement here first proposed. Etymological proposals appear in the most unlikely places, a bibliography of etymology is a bottomless pit, and one should always reckon with the existence of a predecessor. Even Skeat did know everything, but I wonder how he managed to miss F.J.V.’s recent correspondence, considering that he read Notes and Queries with great attention and sent hundreds of letters to it. In any case, he repeated F.J.V. almost verbatim.

The OED declared “derivation from Sc. scunner… inadmissible on phonological grounds and although scoundrel is now vernacular in Scotland,… all the early examples of the word are English.” This verdict may be too harsh. The OED cites early examples in which the spelling is scondrell and skundrell, so that the vowel length in this word seems to have been unstable around the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. The insertion of d poses no problems. The geographical distribution of such a low word in published books is a factor of little significance. It is the meaning that makes Skeat’s etymology less than fully convincing: a scoundrel is not a coward, not a person who shrinks through fear. By contrast, “a loathsome fellow” is fine.

Leo Spitzer returned to Old French, though not to escondre “to abscond” but to escondre “to refuse,” with the result that the original scoundrel would have been “a piece of refuse, trash.” A similar semantic idea occurred to Hensleigh Wedgwood: it was he who derived scoundrel from scum; he also cited Danish skarn “filth, trash” and “a bad person.” Spitzer pointed out that rascal “had the very same meaning ‘refuse, scrapings’.” However, his etymology presupposes that an Old French verb was current in French dialects until the 16th century and influenced the English noun. This reconstruction is rather implausible. I have no suggestions to make, but I would like to ask Romance scholars what they know about Molière’s coining of Sganarelle, the name of his favorite character. This name (with initial sg-) looks Italian, which is not surprising, considering the role of the Italian theater in Molière’s life. Did he base it on the verb sganare “to undeceive,” that is, “to free (a person) from deception or mistake”? I was unable to find works discussing the origin of Molière’s names, but they undoubtedly exist. Wasn’t there in his days a slang word (of the type Rabelais used with such relish) that meant something like “a shrewd person” or, conversely, “a victim of self-deception” that crossed the channel and perhaps merged with scunner to produce scoundrel from *sgan(d)rel or *sgun(d)rel? The name Sganarelle, despite its Italian ring, must also have sounded funny to a French audience. How did the French understand it? If someone either confirms or rejects my connection between scoundrel and Sganarelle, this long post will have served a worthy purpose.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly 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 blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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