The Etymologies of Our English Names of Contempt
|This might belong in EEBOnics, or it might not.|
[Note: It does. See sidebar. Now back to that silly papist Rowlands, aka Verstegan --H.]
Richard Rowlands's A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp, 1605) (STC 21361) is a book of early modern history that covers such topics, among others, as the descent of the English from "the ancient noble Saxons," the manner of living of "our Saxon ancestors," the coming of the Danes and Normans into England, "the etymologies of the ancient Saxon proper names of men and women," and "our ancient English titles of honor, dignities, and offices, and what they signify." But my favorite section of the book, by far, is its last: "The Etymologies of Our English Names of Contempt" (333-38).
Here are the words covered in this section (in Rowlands's spelling; you'll see this is important): Baud, Crone, Drabbe, Fixen, Hoor, Knaue, Losel, Lourdaine, Quean, Rascall, Ribald, Scold, Shrew, Thief.
While reading about the etymologies and definitions of these words is a fun evening in its own right, my favorite moments are those when Rowlands expresses his exasperation (or maybe it's befuddlement) with certain changes that have occurred to the meanings and spellings of words. To wit:
Quean. Wee often heare this reproachefull name of Quean giuen to a woman, and what it is I suppose few do know, but not beeing any way the appellation properly of a woman, it must then bee some other contemptible thing, and so I do fynd it to bee, to wit, A barren old cow, and no other thing, and yet it is now growne to bee in our language, vnderstood and ment for a dishonest woman of her body, or one that is spytefull of her toung."And no other thing," indeed! "And yet"...oh how the word is being misued by his contemporaries.
Crone. This properly is the appellation of an old yeow, and applyed in anger vpon an old or elderly woman.I love that "properly"; you can almost hear the contempt Rowlands has for those who use this term improperly. He does provide, however, one explanation for how terms of contempt come into being and why they begin to be misused. In his definition of Rascall, he notes that "the il names of beasts in their moste contemptible state, are in contempt applyed vnto women," an exception being rascall, which is "the name for an ilfauoured leane and woorthlesse deer, comonly applyed vnto such men as are held of no credit or woorth."
But, for me, nothing tops his ruminations on the spelling of hoor:
Hoor. I fynd this anciently written hure, and I fynd hure, to bee also vsed and written for the woord hyre, and because that such incontinent women do comonly let their bodyes to hyre, this name was therefore aptly applied vnto them."Aptly" vs. "I know not with what reason"--the essence of the Richard Rowlands etymological experience.
One more thing: when you all are next teaching Renaissance drama and poetry, you now know how to pronounce whore in the early modern English way. It's hoor, as in poor (or as in moor). Try it, it's fun: hoor. Again: hoor. Excellent. Good work.
[Edited to clarify pronunciation of hoor, which I'm not even sure is entirely historically accurate, but I like the way it sounds when it's rhymed with moor.)