rapscallion, rascal

Here they come, a whole battalion – a million, a jillion, all in rebellion. But not a stallion among them, just slubberdegullions fed on slumgullion, slavering for bullion but barely getting bouillon. What do we do with this cotillion of tatterdemalion hellions? Why, rap them with scallions and they’ll scatter, the rapscallions.

Not that that’s where rapscallion comes from. You know what a rapscallion is, don’t you? If the word looks like rascal decked out for a cotillion, you pretty much have it. A rapscallion is a rascal, a rogue, a vagabond (to quote the OED), a raffish scalawag. The word is just rascallion with a rap of p to make it smarter and sharper. And rascallion? Just rascal with a fillip on the end. The OED tells me that rampallion may have had some influence too – it’s a now less-used word with similar sense.

Of them all, though, rapscallion is the one with the smartest double-slap and dribble: DUMP—DUDdadum! The first syllable takes up about as much time as the other three. You can say “Don’t give a damn” with the same rhythm. Actually, that rhythm shows up in various guises in many places – the Carol of the Bells springs to mind.

Rascal, by the way, has undergone amelioration in its history. It was first a collective term for hoi polloi, the low folk, the mobile vulgus, the rabble. It was soon used also for a singular member of that bunch. From there it came to refer to a scoundrel or rogue. But while scoundrel still has its negative tone, rogue is now often used with a certain approbation. And rascal has also gotten an endearing tone, especially through application to children. You may think of the mid-century TV series, earlier movie series, and much later movie The Little Rascals, also known as Our Gang, featuring characters with names like Alfalfa and Buckwheat. It was notable for featuring kids behaving like actual kids, and for including girls and African-American children in main roles. The children were rumbustious and endearing. Small wonder that little rascal is the most common collocation for rascal.

But not for rapscallion. It’s not used enough to have a clear most common collocation. Rascal is a common enough word, ready for use like some napkin from your coat pocket; rapscallion is a flourish with a tattered silk handkerchief, a name suited for a swordsman or a pirate. To me it gives an image of an 18th-century highwayman in vermilion coat with lace at his throat, threatening travellers with not a shot from a pistol but a – a little lash with leek? No! Just a rap with a scallion!

5 responses to “rapscallion, rascal

  1. rascal < ME rascaile = persons of lowest class, rabble, mob < OF rascaille ~ OE = low, dishonest person, knave, rogue < Hebrew רֶשַׁע resh-shin-aiyin RaSHa[K] (evil, iniquity, evildoing, wrong) + Fr. –elle ??

  2. Hi James,
    My reviser colleague and I are wondering why you would raise the “th” in “18th-century.” We are constantly correcting raised ordinal numbers in English copy because people are influenced by this practice in French text, where it is the correct form. (We work in Quebec.) We are also curious about your choice of the en dash with spaces on either side to set off a phrase, rather than an em dash with no spaces. If you consider these to be style choices, would you care to share the basis for them (e.g. style guide)? Thank you!

    • Both of these are supported by Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. I don’t use the superscript for ordinals in most contexts (e.g., for the websites I do as part of my day job), but the truth of it is that I write my blog in Word and paste it into WordPress, and the former automatically superscripts the th and the latter keeps the superscripting and I can’t be bothered to change it, especially since Bringhurst prefers it.

      As to the dashes, that is actually a very deliberate choice. I’ve been editing websites for 15 years, and one thing I know exquisitely well is that browsers do not break lines before or after an em-dash without spaces. If I write text including something like very telegenic—unnecessarily so and it falls at the wrong place in the text flow (not altogether predictable or controllable, especially with resizable pages), the line can be terribly ragged, a huge indent at the end of one line where telegenic—unnecessarily doesn’t quite fit. Thus I use the acceptable alternative of an en-dash with spaces – an alternative that, for setting off phrases, is again Bringhurst’s preference. In print materials I confess a preference for em-dashes in the same function, but they don’t produce good results on the web, and I don’t fancy putting spaces on either side of them (although that is house style for The Week and so in my articles for them I adhere to that style).

  3. Reblogged this on Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine and commented:
    Trivia for the day.

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