Last weeks post on the etymology of the word "jackanapes" got me thinking about how insults seem to have more staying power than other phrases. Other than a few words of obvious recent vintage - I am thinking "nerd" here - a lot of insults are centuries old. Maybe this is akin to the phenomenon of toddlers immediately and fluently picking up the sort of colorful words their parents might speak when they, for instance, might hit their thumb with a hammer.
I don't think this is going to become a regular feature mind you, but the other day I used the word "dastardly" and got to wondering just what a "dastard" really was.
Evidently the mid 15th century meaning of the word was "dazed". Possibly an English adoption of a French word "dast" of that meaning, or of a Dutch word "dasen" which meant to act silly. The suffix "-ard" is a derogatory way to designate somebody with a given quality.
Ladies and Gentlemen I present Cheech and Chong, the two most Dastardly men on planet Earth.
The word dastardly later morphed a bit and acquired the meaning of "one who shirks from danger". I suspect Cheech and Chong would not shirk but could quite easily get lost on their way to a fight. The current implications of super villain manipulative skill has wandered very far from the original meaning of the word.
As to other words ending in "-ard" the obvious one to look at next is the near homonym "bastard".
Not a particularly nice word in current use, it literally means a person - generally male - of illegitimate birth. And it has the secondary implication of such a person being a mean spirited and harsh person.
But it started out being much less pejorative. "Bastard" was an Old French word probably of 13th century vintage. It meant the acknowledged illegitimate child of a nobleman. This sort of thing happened pretty often back in the day, and the term is probably derived from "fils de bast". Literally this means "pack saddle son" and suggests conception under improvised and rustic conditions. A faint echo of this may persist here in northern climes. When somebody is leaving a door open in cold weather we say "Close the door, were ya born in a barn?".
Being a Bastard back in the day was neither unusual nor held against you. Jesus himself was "born in a barn" and with slightly ambiguous paternity. Probably the sight of seeing princely half brothers inheriting the kit and kaboodle eventually caused the word to accrue the negative tone that many of its bearers understandably adopted.
There are a number of other "-ard" words, mostly circa 1400 and somewhat insulting. Drunkard, Sluggard, Dotard, Dullard. Niggard has mostly gone out of style, having acquired some negative connotations from the 19th century onward. Perhaps black folks can still get away with using it.
Wizard is the only word of this structure that I know of with a positive connotation, and perhaps 600 years ago even that was equated with sorcery.
A surprise entry to the list would be "Petard" but it is a rather juvenile word, even if Bill Shakespeare liked it.