Vile and Villain

By Mark Nichol

A recent reference to a certain Republican presidential candidate in which he was described as vile sent me to online etymological resources to look up the origin of the term. Interestingly, vile is unrelated to the similar-looking villain.

Vile derives from the Latin term vilis, which means “base,” “cheap,” “common,” or “worthless.” Villain, on the other hand, originally had a neutral connotation: Although it also comes from Latin, its origin is the term villa, meaning “country house” or “farm” and still in use for the former meaning in English (from Italian).

Villain originally meant “farmhand,” but from a pejorative reference to the low-born status of rustic farm laborers came to be associated with base behavior and by the early 1800s was associated with an antagonist in a novel or a play. In historical contexts, the variant spelling villein retains the original meaning. (The suffix -ville in the name of a town, and village, are related.)

The Old English term ceorl, which survives in churl, also degenerated from a neutral term for a peasant (in this case, centuries earlier), as did the later word boor, derived from the French term bovier (literally, “herdsman,” and cognate with the Dutch word boer) and also much older in its negative sense than villain. The adjectives churlish and boorish both describe rude behavior; in each case, -ness is added to the adjective to produce the noun form.

The verbs revile and vilify stem from vile; they mean, respectively “to consider with scorn” and “to slander.” (The noun forms are revilement and vilification.) However, servile and its noun form servility are related to neither vile nor villain; they derive from the Latin term servilis, meaning “of a slave.”

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2 Responses to “Vile and Villain”

  • venqax

    Would it be fair to say that something of a transitional fossiI is shown in the famous lines of King Lead where Edgar and Oswald each use the term villain in the sense of assistants or minions, but with markedly pejorative connotations?

    Edgar’s reference to Oswald being “a serviceable villain” is particularly well known, but in its entirety the phrase seems to employ villain simply to mean servant:

    “I know thee well– a serviceable villain,
    As duteous to the vices of thy mistress.”
    As badness would desire.”

    The implication seems to be that being a villain in service of an evil mistress is what is condemnable, while simply being a villain is not necessarily so. D’ya think, perhaps?

  • venqax

    You do know King Lead, of course; close cousin of Lear who was the subject of an identical play. Edit function!!

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