2005-09-05

The black guard and the house wives

Nowadays the word blackguard is a somewhat archaic insult, but the black guard were originally the kitchen servants, who were so-called because they had to deal with coal. As often, words for lower-class people become words for bad people: villain used to mean 'serf' (this meaning is usually spelled villein these days, but the words are the same), and before that it meant 'village-dweller'.

The narrator of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales says of the Knight:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight.

which (in addition to being a spectacular example of Middle English multiple negation) means that the Knight was 1) never rude and 2) never behaved like a peasant.

The standard pronunciation of "blackguard" is "blaggard". It's typical for compounds to be pronounced as single words when they get established, and later to undergo sound-change as if they were single words. For example, English has created three separate compounds from house and wife: the modern formation housewife, the Middle English hussif (obsolete now, but still current in the 19th century) meaning 'sewing-kit', and the one dating back to Old English times, which now takes the form hussy.

2 comments:

Saif said...

In fact 'housewife' is widely used to replace the earlier 'hussif' - at least in the context of British Military usage c.1992.

Anonymous said...

The term to "black guard" was used as a term meaning to swear, cuss, or anyother bad word. i.e. "Don't black guard (cuss) like that." This saying was brought to America by the Irish during the 1700's, and is still used by many old people in the South