Daily Archives: June 14, 2010


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!”


This word has a little bit of irony in it. The Y chromosome is the male chromosome, and polygyny has three Y’s, but polygyny means having multiple women – specifically multiple wives. Perhaps it’s because a guy who marries multiple women is sure to find himself saying “Why, why, why?” (It may be because he’s been jailed for it, or it may just be that they all want to go on vacation at the same time to completely different places.) You could see the y‘s as funnels, and the guy’s life is going down the drain – hell hath not too many furies like a woman two-timed, but one of the furies greater might be that of a woman three-timed, four-timed, or what have you.

It may be more appropriate that this word has a bit of an echo of religion, since a man’s practice of polygyny is usually dictated by what religion he adheres to. It also has a bit of a sound of appalling, but no more than any other poly word has. It also rhymes with aborigine, which works OK in that Australian Aborigines have a cultural history (if not present) of polygyny, though of course they’re far from the only ones. It also sounds like pigeon, which again is ironic, as most pigeons bond in pairs for life.

The more common term used for multiple marriage is polygamy, but that actually refers to any multiple marriage – a woman could have multiple husbands and be a polygamist; where the law allows people of the same sex to marry, any combination of sexes would still be polygamy as long as a given person is married to more than one other person. But usually the terms polygamy and polygyny are used in reference to societies where the practice is accepted; in cultures such as ours where it’s illegal, you’re more likely to hear of bigamy, in part because it’s exponentially more difficult to hide each additional marriage, and in part just because of the flavour common usage has given the words.

There is also a word for having multiple husbands, by the way: polyandry. It is less often seen, perhaps because a woman only has so much time and a lot of it is eaten up by cleaning up after even one man, let alone several, but probably more likely for various other biological and cultural factors that deserve more space than I can reasonably give here. William James is credited with one speculative proposal: “Higgamus, hoggamus, woman’s monogamous – hoggamus, higgamus, man is polygamous.”

Polyandry differs from polygyny and polygamy in an important way: while the latter two are secundus paeons, the former is a ditrochee. By which I mean that the latter two have one stress, on the second syllable (like impossible and adorable and impeccable and a Cadillac and so on), whereas polyandry has two, a simple two-beat rhythm, as though it were a woman’s name: “This is Polly Andry, and these are her husbands!”

The g in polygyny, by the way, has the same sound as the g‘s in frigid and rigid and syzygy. That’s a deviation from the source, of course: in Classical Greek, it was always the sound you hear in polygamy. I find the alveopalatal affricate (as in polygyny) has a more delicate sound than the velar stop (as in polygamy), and it does give the word an additional echo of Ginny, which might be the name of the second wife (the first being Polly, of course).

You probably know well enough that the poly in these words means “many”. The gyn, for its part, may look very familiar by itself as the beginning of gynecologist (which has the velar stop [g], just to keep you dizzy). The andr shows up in various references to men, as for instance on a sign you might see in a hospital near the gynecology sign: andrology. (It also appears in android.) The gam just means you’re game. No it doesn’t! Well, it does, but that’s not the origin; it comes from a Greek word, gamos, meaning “marriage”.

As for the newer term polyamory, by the way (which really does sound like a person’s name, and may well be, Amory being a real surname), it’s macaronic: it mixes Greek and Latin, amory coming from the Latin for “love”. The term is generally used by people who want to have multiple boyfriends or girlfriends; it’s not restricted to spouses. The term was first documented in the early 1990s. Polygyny, on the other hand, dates from the 18th century, polyandry from the 16th, and polygamy also from the 16th century. The words, I mean; the practices have been well established in some cultures for rather longer, and only in some cases are fading.