Etymology of Villain

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

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


Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of book editing, author coaching, and social media packages.

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7 thoughts on “Etymology of Villain

    • 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.


      • I find this fascinating. I recently searched the etymology of the word because I sensed a discrepancy between our present day meaning and the root word. I’m interested to know if anyone prior to Shakespeare also used it in its current “vile” connotation, and of course why? Somewhere I read someone implying that high society looked down on on lower class peasants, but considering them actual “villains” is way further. And from what I understand, people of all classes went to see Shakespeare’s plays so you’d think he wouldn’t “vilify” those folks spending a high percentage of their wages to come see his plays.

        Liked by 1 person

  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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