Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY WAS CAITIFF’S day; today, varlet exhibits the same sort of linguistic switcheroo: What originally had an innocent meaning evolved into a word rather less complimentary.

Varlet. Varlet’s original meaning as a knight’s page transformed into something less chivalrous. The original 15th-century English evolved from Middle English’s vadlet, whence today’s “valet” as well.

A knight and his varlet. Image from Wordnik.

How the helpful valet and Merriam-Webster’s “base unprincipled” varlet split meanings is what makes etymology so fascinating. Or does it just speak poorly for 15th-century labor relations?

M-W lists a bunch of synonyms for modern-day “varlet,” among them, knave, rapscallion, scallywag, and scoundrel.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971, agrees that varlet’s complimentary meanings are “Now arch.” or “Now only Hist.” These days, varlet describes “a person of a low, mean, knavish disposal; a knave, rogue, rascal.”

Well, I did ask.

The OED also offers this thought from Thomas Tusser, 1573: “Such Lords ill example doth giue, where varlets and drabs so may liue.”

Shakespeare Knew Both Types. Caitiffs and varlets have a theatrical heritage: In Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene 1, Shakespeare has Elbow, a dim-witted constable, trying to one-up another guy by saying, “O thou caitiff! O thou varlet! O thou wicked Hannibal!”

Image from

*Sparknotes says he meant to say “cannibal,” but the character Elbow is not known for his eloquence.

Nor humor, either. According to Jennie Maizel’s Pop-Up Shakespeare, Measure for Measure is considered one of the Bard’s problem plays, “the main problem being, as a comedy, it’s not very funny.”

Image by Barry Blitt for The New Yorker, June 3, 2019.

Today’s White House administration, often described as presenting a comedy of errors, isn’t very funny either. It’s caitiff. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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