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CAITIFFS! VARLETS! WHAT rare but appropriate words describing too many politicians these days. Merriam-Webster lists “caitiff” as an adjective meaning “cowardly, despicable.” It defines the noun ”varlet” as “attendant, menial; a base unprincipled person.”

You probably get the drift of my intention adding these words in my Etymology for Our Times series.

Image by Andrew Harnik/AP, from “Trump and the Co-Opting of the G.O.P.,” by Susan B. Glasser, The New Yorker, July 12, 2019.

These etymological tidbits on caitiff and varlet are in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, respectively.

Caitiff. Merriam-Webster says that caitiff has been a noun as well, used to describe “base, cowardly, or despicable” people since the 14th century. The word evolved from the Anglo-French adjective caitiff, of the same meaning, this version dating back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest.

Caitiff’s etymology has a switcheroo not uncommon in linguistics: The French word caitiff came from the Latin captivus, also whence our word “captive.”

Why captives should be considered despicable evidently arises from an opinion of the captors. Sort of like considering immigrants to be bad because of conditions in their homelands that one disparages.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary mentions this switcheroo as well: “The transition of meaning has taken place more or less in most of the Romantic languages.”

Originally “captive,” caitiff’s third OED definition cites “contempt, and often involving strong moral disapprobation.” Among its references is Caxton’s Reynard, 1481: “He is a foule vylaynous kaytyf.”

William Caxton, c. 1422–c. 1491, English merchant, diplomat, writer, and printer. Published Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, 1464, the first book printed in the English language.

And wouldn’t 15th-century spelling bees have been a hoot.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see how the word “varlet” took part in another linguistic switcheroo. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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