Wayward

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

What is the meaning of “wayward”? When would it be used in a positive context? When would it be used in a negative context?

Because wayward is a negative sort of word, I can’t think of a context in which it would be used positively.

Modern speakers use wayward as an adjective, but it began as a directional adverb. To go “(a)wayward” was to go in a direction away from something. One modern meaning of the adjective is “disposed to go counter to the wishes or advice of others.”

In a religious context, “wayward children” are those who have departed from childhood teachings.

“A wayward animal” is one that has strayed from its owner.

“A wayward bullet” is one that has gone astray from the intended direction.

“A wayward government” is one that is not following the rules.

“A wayward boy” may mean simply that the boy has emotional problems, whereas the description “a wayward girl” often has sexual connotations.

Here are some examples of usage seen in headlines and articles on the Web:

Wayward Tortoise Detained by Los Angeles Police, Eventually Claimed by Owner

Sam rolled over in the bed and encountered a wayward pillow instead of his wife. 

Blueprint for reforming a wayward press council

Faithful Parents and Wayward Children: Sustaining Hope While Overcoming Misunderstanding

[Father Flanagan] founded Boys Town as a humble home for wayward youngsters nearly a century ago.

By the turn of the century…reformers had come to view sexually active women not as victims but as delinquents, and they called for special police, juvenile courts, and reformatories to control wayward girls. 

Wayward Capitalists: Targets of the Securities and Exchange Commission (book title)

Here are some synonyms for the different connotations of wayward:
willful
headstrong
stubborn
obstinate
obdurate
perverse
contrary
insubordinate
disobedient
undisciplined
rebellious
defiant
uncooperative
recalcitrant
unruly
wild
unmanageable
erratic
refractory

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2 Responses to “Wayward”

  • Bill

    The first time I heard the word “wayward” was as a kid watching the TV series “Batman.” I was young enough to take it seriously at the time. Adam West, as Batman, was talking, I think, about Catwoman, and said: “Poor … wayward girl.” His delivery was perfect. I just searched for the quote unsuccessfully, but I did find the below, which is sort of pertinent to this site. Funny too!

    Robin: “You can’t get away from Batman that easy!”
    Batman: “Easily.”
    Robin: “Easily.”
    Batman: “Good grammar is essential, Robin.”
    Robin: “Thank you.”
    Batman: “You’re welcome.”

  • Roberta B.

    Like “The Wayward Wind” – Nice alliteration. Nice song from a long time ago, and I’m sure it’s one in my parents’ record collection from the 50’s.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SaeWh3h8Fg

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