Simanaitis Says

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GIVEN THAT WE have a gangster as president (attempted extortion, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, “take her out,” …), the word and its root “gang” belong in my series of Etymology for our Times. Indeed, it turns out that the root and its suffix both have interesting history.

Gang’s Wholesome Origin. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “gang” was around long before it acquired its modern connotation of “a group of persons working to unlawful or antisocial ends. especially: a band of antisocial adolescents.”

M-W says that Middle English gangan and early Scots gang trace back to Germanic *gangan-, “to go.” This root word is ancient, “probably going back to Indo-European *ǵhenǵh-i̯̯e-, whence also Lithuanian žeñgti ‘to stride.’ ”

Among modern European languages, Lithuanian’s location on the language tree is closest to the Indo-European trunk and original Sanskrit.

Robert Burns’s Gang. Scots laureate Robert Burns wrote the poem “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November 1785.” One of its lines is familiar, even in its original Scots rendering: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley….,” in English, “Go often askew.”

Robert Burns, 1759–1796, Scottish poet and lyricist, Scotland’s National Bard. Portrait by Alexander Nasmyth.

It’s a sweet little poem lamenting “Nature’s social union” broken by man’s dominion, yet also noting that “Still you are blessed, compared with me!/ The present only touches you….”

Gang Falls into Bad Company. In the 14th century, the noun “gang” originally also meant a set of things, such as a “gang of oars,” and eventually of people.

“Who stole the people’s money?” “Twas him.” Illustration of the Tammany Hall Tweed Ring by Thomas Nast.

It was only in the latter portion of the 19th century that these people took a bad turn etymologically. Today, M-W defines the word gangster as “a member of a gang of criminals: RACKETEER.”

Gangster’s synonyms include bully, mobster, thug, and [British] yobbo. My series Etymology for our Times has yet to add yobbo.

“Ster,” Etymologically. M-W notes that the suffix -ster has a number of possible meanings, among them “one that does, handles, or operates.”

Also, M-W writes that one of ster’s “interesting elements is that it has, in many cases, shifted its gender. This second portion of gangster comes from the Old English -estre, meaning ‘female agent.’ In modern use, the addition of -ster may often be found in a gender-neutral sense, as with hipster, or with implications of masculinity, as with gangster and mobster, through prevalence of usage.”

Yes, the Don, Rudy, Lev, Igor, Mitch, Brett…. All guys. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. Bill Rabel
    February 6, 2020

    Yobbo-In-Chief seems to have a nice ring to it…

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