Words change on us when we aren’t looking.
For example, I innocently used the word thug the other day, meaning to refer to a brutish person employed in bringing physical violence to those who failed to meet obligations, such as gambling debts; mobsters send out thugs, I would have said, as enforcers. I could have said goon or torpedo, or lout or ruffian, or hoodlum, but thug is the word I have heard in that context for much of my life. I was told it derived from the Hindi and Nepalese word, thugee, for a person who robs and murders
Then I happened to hear John McWhorter, an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia respond to the retraction of the word, thug, by President Obama and the Mayor of Baltimore, after having described the actions of those who looted stores following the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police as violence done by thugs.
“Well, the truth is that thug today is a nominally polite way of using the N-word. Many people suspect it, and they are correct. When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new N-word doesn’t need to. It’s most certainly is.”
If McWhorter is right, and I have no reason to doubt his assertion, I am once again several decades behind the times and apt to make blunders of similar insensitivity on a regular basis. I’m cautious and increasingly aware that my presumptions about language get me into awkward situations, but I rarely have the wit to pause in mid-sentence seeking assurance that I haven’t casually stepped into blunderland once again. Instead, I find myself using terms no longer employed in ordinary speech. My exchanges are with ordinary folks who, for the most part, are patient with my lapses into language last used when Teddy Roosevelt and Hiram Johnson ran as the nominees of the Bull Moose Party. They are kind, or, I suspect, weary enough, to think happy thoughts while I ramble on in anachronistic incoherence.
Consider these bad boys, for example, the louts, persons whose intentions are not charitable; It strikes me that they actually fall into a number of sub-categories, each of which describes subtle but important differences of villainy. For purposes of clarity, then, it may be salutary to consider the spectrum of words of disapprobation.
I use the word salutary to mean beneficial, but also to mean beneficial particularly in sitiuations in which the process might be unpleasant; no one says it might be salutary to eat ice cream. Vegetables, maybe. In the same fashion, disapprobation is slightly stronger than disapproval but less condemning than, say, condemning.
Might as well start with louts. Louts are oafish. They may be primitives, brusiers, lugs, knuckle-dragging cavemen, or they may be hooligans, yahoos, or roughnecks. Loutish behavior is churlish, uncouth and aggressive. That said, a churl, to be precise, can be a person lacking courtesy, but more properly simply means a person of low birth, a peasant. Louts and churls may occupy the same space,but they are not the same species.
Similarly, to describe someone as a boor is to imply that their behavior is offensive, insensitive, and often intrusive, too loud and too persistent. A swine comes into your home, puts his feet on your dining room table, belches, tells vile jokes, and breathes cigar smoke into your face. Positively boorish. Boors make poor company and should be avoided whenever possible; they may be off-putting, but not necessarily immoral.
Cads and bounders, now there we have bad behavior. These are identified by the purposefully self-aggrandizing things they do at another’s expense, although their actions are manipulative or exploitative, not generally physically threatening, with one notable exception. Sexual predators are cads; they are bounders.
Despicable is despicable, but … there is one slightly less reprehensible character to introduce. Known as the “rakehell” or rake, this reprobate is addicted to misbehavior. Actually, the clinical description is ” habituated to immoral behavior”. Oddly, the word “rakish” generally means jaunty or sporty rather than describing a roue, libertine or debauchee. At his worst, a rake approaches caddishness, but at his best, he may be a merry rascal, a rogue running up debts, maybe gambling a bit recklessly, a profligate, prodigal, a spendthrift, ducking his debts.
That settled, how is it that there are so few terms that properly describe women capable of comparable perfidy? Certainly the capacity for bad behavior is relatively evenly distributed among genders. Even with the grudging admission that many of the terms used for men are attached to physical strength, it is a revealing question because in this descent into misbehavior, we are likely to find that derogatory terms used for women are most commonly words that shame rather than describe, thereby demonstrating misogyny rather than social censure. One study found two hundred and twenty words that describe a sexually promiscuous woman and twenty that describe a promiscuous man.
So, all two hundred and twenty words are out-of-bounds, from doxy and trollop to hussy and vamp. Bad behavior is not gender bound, however, and the occasion may arise in which a female rapscalilion has to be called out.
At her worst, she’s a black widow, like Griselda Blanco, La Madrina, the Cocaine Godmother, Queen of Narco-Trafficing, responsible for several hundred murders, or Vera Renczi who poisoned her husband, son, and thirty other men, some of whom ought to have caught on before slugging down the arsenic aperetive.
The drop-off to the next level of misbehavior is startling, sliding from poisoner of afternoon tea or axe weilding murderer, the deadly black widow, to minx. Women can be boorish, of course, but are more likely to be described as fishwives, loud and rude. Look about us: No oafettes, goonesses, she-bounders.
A college friend invented epithets on the fly, a very helpful skill in the heat of the moment, especially for those of us who have missed the memo on words that have changed meaning.
“I hope that phlegm juggling son of a reindeer finds open sores on his eyelids.” It’s a benediction to be used with care, but until I’m corrected, injurious only to reindeer.