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You Must Pay the Rent! Churls, Boors, Villains, and other malfeasants

Country folk get a bad rap in the English language (indeed, in most languages). Five months ago, we glanced at the word villain. The word once denoted a farmhand, but now universally refers to the antagonist of a story or a situation. Back in October, I puzzled about why we should equate productive men of the soil with calumny and scheming. After all, none of the great villains of Shakespeare or Virgil are peasants.

As it turns out, we can chalk up the journey from rural hired hand to malefactor to garden-variety classism. Workers bound to a villa (plantation) were considered rough and unmannered, especially compared with knights and squires. Indeed, villeins formed an official social class in feudal Europe, much as peóns did in colonial Latin America. Since hayseeds couldn’t tell a dinner fork from an oyster fork, and also since they knew nothing of courtly manners, they must be to blame for crimes most foul, at least in the minds of the nobility. Hence, villain, the bad guy/gal.

Two other English words also make the leap from “country rube” to “disagreeable person,” meaning-wise. Boor means “farmer,” and comes from the same Germanic root that gave us the Dutch boer. And like villain, the word assumes a certain lack of refinement — in fact, that is the very definition of boor in modern English. Churls were one rung above the villeins, being free farmers rather than serfs, but all that means is they got off the hook for murder, theft, and world domination. Instead, their coarse ways gave us the adjective churlish and the noun churl, an ill-tempered, rude person. I’d rather have world domination.

Lest we let the upper classes off the hook too easily, the words bourgeois and bourgeoisie came to describe the middle and upper-middle classes. It acquired its perjorative connotation of vain materialism during the French revolution, when it was well-earned. Karl Marx hammered the final nails in the coffin of bourgeois respectability, at least in common-use English.

Interestingly, both bourgeois (think burgher) and villain are words which etymologically suggest “city dweller.” So I guess the agrarians get their linguistic revenge in the end, proving that an Arkansas toothpick beats an oyster fork any day.

 – Otto E. Mezzo

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