Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Sometimes words just won't behave themselves.  I think I have something clever figured out about the origins of a particular word or phrase, then darn it all I have to go and find out that I was wrong.

Consider the words villain and vilify.  Now it would make sense for vilification to be the process by which you define somebody as a villain.  And being clever I had a whole rant worked out tracing the word back to villa, the Roman word for a small town or in certain senses for a country estate.

It is reasonable to assume that the owners of villas in the Roman era considered their laborers to be uncouth bumpkins.  And that was the meaning that carried through from Middle Latin villanus for farmhand, into Old French as vilain and across the channel to England where it reclaimed the extra l and became villain.

The sense of a villain being crooked or nefarious is a fairly modern development.  I assume that as we became a more urban culture it got easier to assign negative attributes to rural peasants.  Its not as if quality people really had to interact with them any more.....

But to vilify, that seems to be a different thing than saying nasty stuff about villains.  The meaning seems to fit, to vilify being to "lower in worth or value".  The sense of slandering and speaking evil of came along in the late 1500s.  But the root word here is not villa but vilis. a late Latin word meaning cheap or base.  The same word of course also giving us vile.

Or so various etymological sources I referenced claim.  But sometimes with spellings and meanings mutating back and forth I have to wonder if the scholars really know everything.

Chedworth Roman villa in the Cotwolds.  I hope to visit in the spring.

No comments: