And Don't Call Me 'Sirly'!

Rob Kyff on

Medieval aristocrats living in lofty castles looked down on the commoners around them, both literally and figuratively. So it's no surprise that words denoting farmers and townies soon acquired negative connotations. Eventually, in fact, two noblemen could insult each other simply by exchanging "peasantries."

Let's take a look at the rustic origins of some disparaging terms:

Villain -- During the Middle Ages, a commoner who lived in a rural town was called a "villein," from the Latin "villa" (village). Because the upper crust considered villagers inferior, "villein" came to mean crude or uncouth. Eventually, its descendent "villain" whiplashed snidely into its modern sense of a scoundrel or knave.

Boor -- A similar fate befell "boor." Derived from an old German root meaning to dwell, "boor" originally denoted someone who worked the land. But, because the gentry regarded farmers as uncouth and vulgar, "boor" acquired its present meaning of a rude or insensitive person. (Meanwhile, the gentry contented themselves with simply being bores.)

Churl -- The Old English "ceorl," derived from the Old Norse "karl" (man, husband), simply meant a peasant. Aye, there's the rub! For "ceorl" and later "churl" -- surprise, surprise -- came to mean a base or vulgar person, and "churlish" to mean uncivil or rude.

Pagan and heathen -- These terms, which now refer to nonbelievers or "uncivilized" people, first denoted rural folks. "Pagan" comes from the Latin "paganus," which meant a villager, rustic or someone from the "pagus" (country).

"Heathen" is derived from an Old English word that originally meant "someone who lives on the heath, a country dweller." Both "pagan" and "heathen" eventually came to mean people who are not religious or who practice religions other than Christianity, Islam or Judaism.


Clown -- Those blue-blooded bozos were at it again with "clown." Possibly derived from the Frisian "klonne" (a clumsy fellow) or the Latin "colonus" (colonist, farmer), "clown" originally meant a farmer or countryman. Perhaps having seen too many episodes of "Hee-Haw," the fancy-pants set started using "clown" to mean a fool or jester.

Surly -- Sweet revenge! The peasants struck back with their creation of "surly." When a medieval nobleman behaved in an arrogant or pompous manner, he was said to behave "sirly," that is, like a sir. "Sirly," which soon evolved into "surly," eventually became a general term meaning crabby or gruff.

Score one for the good guys!


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




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