By Anatoly Liberman
Slang words are so hard to etymologize because they are usually isolated, while language historians prefer to work with sound correspondences, cognates, and protoforms. Most modern “thick” dictionaries tell us that rogue, the subject of this post, is of unknown origin. This conclusion could be expected, for rogue, a 16th-century creation, meant “a wandering mendicant.” (Skeat attributes the original sense “a surly fellow” to it but does not adduce sufficient evidence in support of his statement.) Words for “beggar,” “vagabond,” and “scoundrel” often originate among beggars, vagabonds, and scoundrels. Not improbably, the first “rogues” called themselves rogues, but even if this is true, it in no way clarifies matters. We do not know where hobo, a much more recent coinage, came from; consequently, it should surprise no one that rogue, which appeared in a text in 1561, remains an unsolved etymological puzzle.
The first English etymological dictionaries were published in 1617 (John Minsheu) and 1671 (Stephen Skinner). Neither author had a clue to the origin of rogue, though for Minsheu it was contemporary slang. But he looked for the answer in a wrong direction and cited a Hebrew and a Greek look-alike as a possible etymon. Skinner thought of an Old English source and (predictably) found nothing of interest. The same holds for Franciscus Junius, the third most erudite English etymologist of the “prescientific” epoch. Other researchers made no progress either, for fanciful references to Dutch and to various English verbs beginning with an r took them nowhere (sterile guesswork can hardly be called an achievement). We seem to be in the same position as our distant predecessors, except that we can now say with a clear conscience: “Origin unknown.” However, something is known, and this “something” is not unimportant.
Quite early, rogue acquired the senses “knave” and “villain” and became a facetious term of endearment. Today we mainly apply it to scamps and mischievous persons, especially to the rogues prone to displaying a roguish smile. The main stumbling block (though it should have been a stepping stone) in reconstructing the history of rogue is French rogue “arrogant, haughty,” which, odd as it may seem, is evidently unrelated to arrogance. Arrogance and arrogant go back to the root of Latin arrogare “claim for oneself,” from the prefix ad- and rogare “ask” (compare interrogate and prerogative). If French rogue is not akin to arrogant, what is its origin? Friedrich Diez, the founder of Romance comparative linguistics, suggested that the French had borrowed rogue from Old Norse (Scandinavian) and cited Old Icelandic hrókr “rook; long-winded talker.” This rather improbable etymology has been questioned a few times, but it still appears, though not without some hedging, in the most authoritative dictionaries of French. Our greater concern is that, according to an opinion that has long since become dogma, French rogue is neither the source nor a cognate of Engl. rogue. Only the great German etymologist Friedrich Kluge thought otherwise (but he devoted a single line to the English word), and Skeat believed that the meaning of roguish had been influenced by French.
Similar Celtic words, such as Scottish Gaelic rag “villain; a thief who uses violence,” with a cognate in Breton, were noticed long ago. Judging by their geographical distribution, they are not loans from French. Nor does the French word look like a borrowing from Celtic. The OED offered no etymology of rogue and did not mention the oldest hypothesis on its origin. William Lambarde, a famous 16th-century author on legal matters, traced rogue to Latin rogator “asker, beggar” (thus drawing a bridge from rogue to arrogance) and found several supporters. However, for a learned Latinism rogue is too well known in British dialects. This fact did not stop Ernest Weekley from writing in his 1921 Etymological Dictionary of Modern English: “Distinct from F[rench] rogue, arrogant, but perh[aps] connected with rogation, petition. Cf. F[rench] roi Pétaud, king of the beggars, which some connect with L[atin] petere, to ask.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology found the connection between rogue and rogare probable, but the OED online did not support that conjecture. The rare late Middle English noun roger “a begging vagabond pretending to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge” (with g, possibly as in go) must be allied to rogue, but since nothing is known about it, roger cannot shed light on the equally impenetrable rogue, its rather certain cognate or derivative.
Enter Charles MacKay, a knowledgeable man and the author of several useful books, but also an etymological monomaniac, to use the term Weekley coined for scholars who derived all words from one language. MacKay believed that thousands of English words go back to Scottish Gaelic and in 1877 brought out a dictionary full of the most fanciful conjectures. He was hauled over the coals by his contemporaries and never taken seriously. Yet experience shows that no etymologist should be dismissed too soon, for there is no way of knowing what can be found in the scholarly garbage or in a dust heap. If while working on the etymology of ragamuffin, I had known what MacKay said about rogue, I would have realized that Leo Spitzer had a partial predecessor, who, despite his obsession with Gaelic, offered a fruitful idea. I suspect that Spitzer was not aware of MacKay’s dictionary. Quite naturally, MacKay traced rogue to Scottish Gaelic, but he also compared it with ragman (as in ragman’s roll) and ragamuffin, and this is what Spitzer (1947) thought too. The French name Rogue was used of traitors and infidels, whereas Ragamont and Rageman occurred among the names of the devil. The vowels (a versus o) do not match, but Rogue “devil” (French), though unattested, looks plausible.
Just why the name Rogue stuck to the devil, why the pirates’ flag was known as Jolly Roger, why in radio communications Roger means “message received,” and why the verb roger is a synonym of the F-word can be left for further discussion. We have Engl. rogue to deal with. It may not be too bold to suggest that rogue originated in France, where it meant “traitor; infidel” and where its etymon was the unrecorded but probable Rogue “devil.” From France it presumably spread to late medieval England (rogue, roger) and to the Celtic speaking countries. Common European slang, sometimes quite old, is a reality. (I encountered it in working on the etymology of mooch and pet.) Meanings differ from land to land: “mendicant” in one place, “arrogant” in another, “villain” in a third. Poor devils are unaccountable little creatures. Latin rogare, I believe, should be left out of this story, even if someone at one time made a connection between beggars pretending to be students at Oxford and Cambridge and a verb meaning “to ask.”
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.”