Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The history of the word ‘bad’, Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Lunatics and Hermaphrodites

Quite often the first solid etymology of an English word comes from Skeat, but this is not the case with the adjective bad. In the first edition of his dictionary (1882), he could offer, with much hesitation, two Celtic cognates of bad, one of them being Irish Gaelic baodh “vain, giddy, foolish, simple.” Much later, Charles Mackay, who believed that Irish Gaelic was the source of most English words, mentioned beud “mischief, hurt” as the etymon of bad. Richard Coates in a 1988 publication cited Cornish badus “lunatic” appearing in William Pryce’s dictionary (it is spelled lunatick there). Pryce did not deal with etymology, and Coates only says that for phonetic reasons badus and Engl. bad cannot be related because the oldest attested English forms of bad invariably had two d’s. Is badus a genuine Cornish word or a Latinization of the English adjective? Cornish bad “bad; stupid” has a solid tradition in texts, but I repeat my question: Wasn’t it a borrowing from English? In any case, Skeat’s ao and Mackay’s eu are incompatible with a in Engl. bad. Eric Partridge, whose English etymological dictionary should be studiously avoided, referred to Webster’ dictionary instead of the OED, used a wrong book for his information, and derived bad from the Celtic root bados ~ badtos “to be wide or open… the basic idea of the adjective being ‘wide-open’ (to all influences, especially the worst’).”

Now that we have left behind the boldest flights of the etymological imagination (see also Chapter 1 with its depressing title “From Bad to Worse”), we should realize that bad is a vague concept. Its vagueness makes our task especially difficult. That is bad which is not good (look up the definition of bad in dictionaries!): harmful, corrupt, deficient, and so forth. A bad man is immoral, a bad coin is counterfeit, a bad egg is rotten, a bad etymology is faulty, etc. Much has been made of the dialectal use of bad “ill, sick,” but this case is also trivial. One can be in good health, so that, when one is in pain, one, naturally, feels “bad.” The English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright isolates the following senses of bad as they occur in regional speech: “profligate, tyrannical, and cruel in conduct; sick in pain; sorrowful; difficult, hard.” None of them comes as a surprise. Perhaps the only usage that is unexpected concerns the adverb, when we say I need it badly; there, badly means “very much indeed.” If we imagine that bad traces to some ancient word, it is impossible to guess what it could mean. It is “bad” to be giddy and vain (see Skeat); mischief (Mackay) is also “bad.” Therefore, when we see Skeat reconstructing the root PAD “fall,” from which bad was allegedly derived, we mercifully look the other way. Also, how could Latin p- correspond to Engl. b-?


Strangely, Skeat did not pay attention to the 1873 article on bad by Christian F. Koch. Koch’s idea that bad is related to Old Engl. badu “battle,” though wrong, is not absurd. More important, that article contained a passage which might have enlightened Skeat and to which I’ll soon return. The main event in the history being discussed here was the publication of the first volume of the OED (1884). The earliest citation of bad, written as badde, goes back to 1297, that is, to Middle English. Murray wrote that, according to the suggestion of Professor [Julius] Zupitza (he should not be confused with his son Ernst, an even more distinguished philologist), the etymon of badde is Old Engl. bæddelhermaphrodite.” The consonant l was allegedly lost as in much, from mycel, and in a few other words, while the sense development from “effeminate” to “bad” looked acceptable: all deviations from the average physical norm were considered “bad.” If this etymology is correct, bad has always had a short vowel.

In 1883, so exactly between the dates at which Skeat’s dictionary and the first volume of the OED were published, Gregor Sarrazin’s one-page article appeared. In it he traced bad to Old Engl. gebæded (long æ!), the past participle of bædan “to afflict, oppress”; the letter æ had the value of a in Modern Engl. add. My parenthesis with an exclamation mark is needed because, according to some sources, Old English also had bædan “to defile” with short æ, but this distinction is probably unnecessary. Whether we are dealing with two senses of one verb or a pair of homonyms is a moot question. Sarrazin, who set up an etymon with a long vowel, expressed some doubts about his reconstruction because bad has never been attested with a prefix, and Murray went to the trouble of discussing that article and respectfully (sic) rejecting its idea. Sarrazin’s bad developed from “oppressed” or, much better, from “defiled.”

It is true that bæddel was not pressed into service in connection with bad before Zupitza, but bædling, its synonym, almost its doublet, turned up in Diefenbach’s 1851 dictionary, and Koch, to whose article I promised to return, referred to it. Koch also cited Modern Engl. badling “a worthless person,” a North Country word, and Skeat, with his keen interest in dialects, could have come to nearly the same conclusion as Zupitza, had he noticed it. There is no certainty whether bædling had a short or a long vowel (compare the difficulties with bædan). Zupitza, a German, whose main area of study was English, must have been aware of the works by Diefenbach and Koch that neither Skeat nor Murray had read and only substituted bæddel for bædling, a word well-known to his predecessors. It is unnecessary to reconstruct bad from bæddel by strictly phonetic means, that is, by postulating the loss of l. The adjective could have been a back formation on either noun or led a long underground existence. Wait another week for a more definitive conclusion.

The OED’s etymology of bad found wide recognition (Skeat also accepted it), though Friedrich Kluge followed Koch (bad, “probably identical with Old Engl. abæded ‘forced, compelled’”), while Ferdinand Holthausen, an eminent scholar and the author of an etymological dictionary of Old English, preferred to derive bad from bædan (long æ) “to defile.” Another dissenter was Charles P. G. Scott, the etymologist for The Century Dictionary (CD). He followed Heinrich Leo and reconstructed Old Engl. bede ~ pede from the attested adjective orped “adult, active,” to which he ascribed the sense “hermaphrodite,” as in the OED. This etymology, itself an unnatural hybrid of two hypotheses, had no chance for survival, for how could “active” become “hermaphrodite”? Also, orped remains a word of unknown origin despite one ingenious conjecture about its derivation and is thus unfit to help us out.

How pregnant sometimes his replies are.
How pregnant sometimes his replies are.

A. L. Mayhew in a fiercely aggressive and viciously unfair review of the first volume of the CD, called Scott’s hypothesis absurd, and here he was right. It disappeared from the second edition, in which bæddel is called the etymon of bad, but Scott added a pregnant remark: “…perhaps of nursery origin arising as a dissimilated form (*ba-da,*bad-da) of *ba-ba, modern dialectal babbah (German bäbä), used as an exclamation to warn infants not to touch or taste something thus indicated as ‘bad’… cf. na-na, ta-ta, tut-tut, as used similarly in warning or remonstrance” (the abbreviations have been expanded; asterisks mark unattested forms). Those who have read the post titled “Approaching the big bad word bad will remember that I came to a similar conclusion by reasoning that that monosyllabic words beginning and ending with b, d, and g often have an expressive origin. However, I needed no reference to dissimilation. Nor will I need it in the future.

To be concluded.

Image credits: (1) “Bad” in Volume I of the 1933 edition of the OED. Photo by Alice Northover. (2) Ermafrodito, affresco Romano di Ercolano, 1–50 d.C., Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet, c. 1899. Photo by Lizzie Caswall Smith. Emory University. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. […] on bad written since the publication of The Century Dictionary is the article by Richard Coates, to which I referred in Chapter 2. It deals with personal and place names. Coates concluded that the vowel in badde must have been […]

  2. Leigh

    Have you considered that the negative connotation associated with bad, via “hermaphrodite”, is due not to the effeminacy of the masculine in the hermaphrodite but the division or double-nature? Note the Di- and Do-, prefixes which gives the meaning of “two”, or non-whole, derived from proto Indo-European “duo” which signified “bad”. This is related to the Hindu conception of Brahman and Atman, the Judeo-Christian creation of the world being “the Fall” from God/Oneness, or in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the origin of all suffering derives from the first manifestation of the Will as a phenomenon, in the forces of attraction (Gravity) and repulsion (elasticity; hardness) I.e., division (and multiplicity) of the Will is the origin of pressure and suffering, which

Comments are closed.