A villainous etymology

villain: a character in a story, movie, etc., who does bad things
Merriam-Webster

I’ve been on a major Shakespeare kick lately. One thing I noticed in my devouring of his plays is how many times the bard used the word villain. I mean, it’s a lot. If you turned it into a drinking game, taking a sip every time he used it (which you shouldn’t do because that’s dangerous), you’d in a sad state by act II.

This got me thinking about the etymology of villain. By its spelling, I assumed it came from French (it does), but I didn’t expect it would have much of a story after that. I was wrong. The Online Etymology Dictionary gave me the details.

Villain comes from the Old French word vilain, which does not mean “a bad guy in a cape lurking in the shadows.” It originally meant, in the twelfth century, a “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel.” In other words, a villain was just a regular guy who was unfamiliar with the trappings of high society.

Before Old French, villain had roots in the Medieval Latin villanus, meaning “farmhand.” Before that was the Latin villa, meaning “country house, farm.”

So, is it really so bad to be a villain? Shakespeare still thought so:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 5

 

 

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3 thoughts on “A villainous etymology

    • According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “villain” didn’t take on its current meaning until the early 1800s. But Shakespeare obviously didn’t mean “farmer” when he wrote it, so it is sort of a mystery.

  1. Could he have been using villian in this way to invoke the anti-french sentiment in England throughout the centuries? Like how all bond villians througout the cold war are Russian.

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