A word that scowls! You can just hear the sound of the growl, almost like thunder in showering gale in a movie. “What scoundrel wrote this groundless doggerel about a spaniel and a cockerel on the spandrel?! Now I’ll have to scour it and rescumble it!”
And, for that matter, what scoundrel stole this word’s etymology? It’s known from the late 16th century, but the trail goes cold. Its phonetic character, the OED says, suggests a French origin… Those sneaky French, they must have taken away the etymon. Or perhaps they hid it in the mix. The case remains unclosed, the point unscored, even as cries for solution grow louder; the search proceeds not even by ounces, and the milk curdles while we search for clues; proposed origins are scorned; at the very last the pieces will fall together under a colder sun.
But we certainly know how it is, and has been, used. It hits first like a blow to the ear, and in the second syllable echoes back with a growl, and there is nothing nice about it, certainly not the company it keeps. It is often seen near thief (applied to the same person) and very often seen before an exclamation mark. And it is quite often seen in the quote from Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
If it seems like a word to associate with pirates, that seems reasonable enough, and you may have first gotten the association in your youth reading (or hearing) Stevenson’s Treasure Island: “If you keep on drinking rum, the world will soon be quit of a very dirty scoundrel!”
But it is as likely a word to be associated with the classics of English literature, especially those that involve romances among the nobility, dramatic rises and falls in social status, and such like. Many noted authors have availed themselves of it: Fielding (“My lady! says I, you saucy scoundrel; my lady is meat for no pretenders”; Tom Jones), Dickens (“‘If there is a scoundrel on this earth,’ said Mr. Micawber, suddenly breaking out again with the utmost vehemence, ‘with whom I have already talked too much, that scoundrel’s name is – HEEP!'”; David Copperfield), Eliot (“I believe that scoundrel’s been planning all along to ruin my father,’ said Tom, leaping from the vaguest impressions to a definite conclusion. ‘I’ll make him feel for it when I’m a man. Mind you never speak to Philip again'”; The Mill on the Floss), Austen (“Such a scoundrel of a fellow! such a deceitful dog!”, Sense and Sensibility)… really, scoundrels are the motor of the genre.
Thackeray pretty much defined the type in Vanity Fair: “‘Why did you ask that scoundrel, Rawdon Crawley, to dine?’ said the Rector to his lady, as they were walking home through the park. ‘I don’t want the fellow. He looks down upon us country people as so many blackamoors. He’s never content unless he gets my yellow-sealed wine, which costs me ten shillings a bottle, hang him! Besides, he’s such an infernal character – he’s a gambler – he’s a drunkard – he’s a profligate in every way. He shot a man in a duel – he’s over head and ears in debt, and he’s robbed me and mine of the best part of Miss Crawley’s fortune.'”
But scoundrels can have a certain charm, too, and a certain comedy potential. Witness their presence in recent popular entertainment: the movies Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1998) and School for Scoundrels (2006) and the new comedy-drama TV series Scoundrels. And, after all, the word is such fun to say, like a big bite out of the air, or a lusty, louche “rrowr!”