Fun Etymology Tuesday – Villain

Hello all! It’s your favourite time of the week again: Fun Ety Time! This week, the word is ‘villain’.

For any francophones out there, the French-looking spelling certainly gives away the origin of this word, no? It’s actually no red herring – ‘villain’ does indeed enter English through Old French and Anglo-Norman (the latter is the variety of Norman French spoken in England after the Norman conquest).

Today, ‘villain’ mostly refers to an antagonist in literature or media, someone criminal or with evil intent, but when we first see ‘villain’ appearing in the early 14th century, its meaning referred more to someone low-born and dishonourable, rather than the more specific meaning it has today.

So how did we get to the low-born dishonorable use in the first place? The Old French word comes from the Latin ‘villanus’, which is a derivation of the word ‘villa’, meaning… well, roughly what you’d expect: a big country house or farm.

In fact, ‘villain’ originally simply referred to someone who lived on a farm. Then, people’s prejudice took the reins and we now only find the pejorative meaning of ‘villain’ in both English and French. This is just one of many examples of a word receiving a more negative or positive meaning due to the social connotations it brings.

That’s it for now, tune in next week for more etymology fun!

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