“What? Who knocks at my door? Begone, varlet! Wouldst thou break the quarantine?”

“M’lord, ’tis I…”

“Who, varlet? Answer!”

“The valet.”

“The valet? …Oh. Enter.”

We know what a varlet is: a knave, a rogue, a scoundrel, a low sort, a villain – one whose crimes show violet on the sketch of life. And we know what a valet is (though we disagree on how to say valet): a serving-man, valid, of good avail. They are both of lower status, of course, but one knows his place and fills it suitably, and the other is a rogue.

Well, it’s not that simple, is it.

Is it?

If you’re from North America and say valet as though it were French, then the resemblance with varlet isn’t as strong, but if you’re from England or another country where the English-style pronunciation is used, then it’s quite similar, especially if you don’t actually say the “r.” But the tone of varlet is quite different from that of valet… these days.

We use varlet as we do because, since before Shakespeare was born, it has meant (to quote the OED) “A person of a low, mean, or knavish disposition; a knave, rogue, rascal.” But it got that meaning because it was, first, a word for a servant – a common person attending on a knight or other person of rank. In other words, a valet.

Is varlet an English reconstrual of valet? Or vice versa?

Not at all.

In fact, we got them both from French. It’s in French that the two forms pulled apart. In French, varlet is a now-archaic term for a servant of a knight; it was an alternate form of valet. Both were anglicized in pronunciation after being taken into English, but valet has gotten the high-class French-style reversion (like garage and homage) in some versions of English, and it never suffered the degradation its r-ful version got.

Does it seem unfair to call serving-people and commoners villains? Well, villain was originally by definition a local rustic servant of the villa, or, in the feudal system, a peasant entirely subject to the lord of the manor. They weren’t the property-owning job creators, just unskilled ungrateful local slaves! (Oh, slave has a heck of a history, by the way, and yes, it’s related to Slavic; the connection is Western European conquest and subjugation of the Slavonic countries.)

But how did we come to think of valets and villa-servants as knaves? Oh, say, do you know what a knave is? Originally, a knave was a varlet, a valet, a serving-boy to a knight. If you speak German you’ll know the word for ‘boy’ is Knabe. Yes, it’s the same word, just split apart by the yawning centuries. A knight had his boy, and when he was angry at someone he might compare that person to a serving-boy. “Boy! Why do you speak to me like that, boy?!” (Or, to quote Shakespeare, from Coriolanus, “Measureless liar, thou hast made my heart Too great for what contains it. Boy! O slave!”)

So apparently people of the lower classes are all supposed to be rogues? Well, the ones who don’t know their places, anyway.

Are you guessing where this is leading? OK, I’m not being quite fair. The origin of rogue is still a matter of speculation and dispute. But evidence suggests that, in its origins meaning ‘haughty, aggressive’ and its likely link to arrogant, it meant someone of the lower sort who was… uppity. Didn’t know his place.

But at least rogue is gaining a certain charm lately. Like rascal. Which was once a purely opprobrious term, referring to a… well, a low-class person. The rabble. Rascal apparently comes from a French verb meaning ‘scrape’, as in the bottom of the barrel. Because people who shine our shoes and work in our fields and factories and pour our coffees just aren’t worthy of the respect accorded to those of us who sit in offices and move money around, right?

So, once again, our language bears the still-bleeding scars of centuries of classism and status-based contempt. Varlet, villain, knave, rogue, rascal: someone who is “not our sort, dear,” someone who is a low hick, someone who doesn’t know their place. They probably split their infinitives and dangle their participles too.

But of course we still need them to clean our suits and mop our floors. Diffidently.

3 responses to “varlet

  1. There are so many colourful words that have fallen into disuse. Some simply suffer from mispronunciation. I’m not sure how cache became, to some, cachet, perhaps a misguided attempt at sophistication. All the more reason to cherish plays such as Wild Oats. I spent many evenings at the theatre in London. Beyond plot it was wonderful to hear creative use of language.

  2. It took me least amount of time to read- about six minutes. I have been reading your articles for about six months now. And it might just be a reflection upon my Reading speed rather than on your writing complexity. Dangling modifiers was the common occurrence in these circles but I shall keep batting an eye for dangling participles too henceforth.

  3. Peter Newport

    Speaking of knaves, I heard an echo of Macbeth, “Aroint the knave!” when you used the work “arrogant” in proximity to the aforementioned miscreant. Then there’s “prorogue.” Are any of these words at all related? Care to comment?

    Oh…I sent you an email from the “contact me” page on you website. I’d love to hear back. Ta.

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