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The first English bastard appeared in 1297, although you can be sure people were born out of wedlock before that.
Today people get called bastards all the time without reference to their parents’ state of marriage, and increasingly people are being born of non-married couples and find it offensive to be called bastards.
Around the time when bastard first appeared in English William the Conqueror was known also as William the Bastard. This isn’t because he was a dirty rotten conqueror—the word bastard hadn’t taken on its insulting meaning yet—he was William the Bastard because his parents hadn’t been married.
Having babies out of wedlock has until very recently been something to be terribly ashamed of and downright impractical. So it makes sense that bastard has been used as an insult for some time, but it only made it into print as an insult in 1830.
The root of the word is from Old French and grew out of bast, the name for a packsaddle, which was the structure used to load packs onto a mule. Travelers with romantic intention and opportunity may not have had a convenient bed nearby so the blankets and saddle would serve as bedding and pillow.
Thus children who were not conceived in the marriage bed, were said to be conceived “on the bast” and were therefore bastards.
At least that’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says.
But there, the entry for bastard is perhaps not the most up-to-date. This word has not yet received the repeat scrutiny of the third edition now in progress.
As such the citations given there for bastard are mostly more than a century old.
Other fresher dictionary etymologies decry this pack-saddle theory, saying the chronology of appearance of the supposed source and resulting words are wrong. A better guess (they say) might be a Germanic source word bost meaning “marriage” and that somehow bastards relate to offspring from polygamous marriages.
This is a case where accuracy and advancement of research has struck a blow against entertainment value.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.
[…] Wednesday’s word origin was for sophomore Thursday’s etymology, posted at OUPblog was for bastard and Friday’s word root was for the word […]
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