A Knight Errant and an Arrant Knave

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The adjectives errant and arrant have been mixed up for centuries, but modern usage prefers to keep them apart.

errant: itinerant, traveling

This is the sense present in the term knight errant. The knight roams around looking for maidens to rescue, dragons to slay.

Errant is often used to refer to something that has gone astray.

Woman struck by errant fire hose dies

The Cheonan sinking: The errant mine theory

South Berwick Rod & Gun Club closed after errant bullet found

The word errant can denote error in opinion or conduct.

Phuket Police Chief: ‘I Will Pursue Errant Officers’ (i.e., officers suspected of misconduct)

Errant gene may make some people age faster

[taking scripture out of context] will inevitably lead to errant teachings and inaccurate assumptions about God’s word.

It is only the errant translations and errant teachings of the church that cloud this fact.

arrant: notorious, manifest, downright, thoroughgoing, unmitigated

One speaks of an arrant fool, an arrant liar, an arrant hypocrite, etc.

The word arrant occurs 16 times in the plays of Shakespeare, most frequently in the speech of the “low” characters.

Falstaff: An the Prince and Poins be not two arrant cowards, there’s no equity stirring –Henry IV, Part One, II, ii

Dame Quickly:Yonder he comes; and that arrant malmsey-nose knave, with him. –Henry IV, Part Two II,i

Robert Shallow: Use his men well, Davy; for [they]are arrant knaves and will backbite. –Henry IV Part Two, V,i

Dame Quickly: No, thou arrant knave; I would to God that I might die, that I might have thee hang’d. –Henry IV, Part Two V,iv

Gower: Why, this is an arrant counterfeit rascal; I remember him now; a bawd, a cutpurse. –Henry V III,vi

The blustering Welshman Fluellen in Henry V is especially fond of the word:

Kill the poys and the luggage! ’tis expressly 
against the law of arms: ’tis as arrant a piece of 
knavery, mark you now, as can be offer’t; (IV,vii)

his reputation is as arrant a villain and a Jacksauce, as ever his black shoe trod upon God’s ground (IV,vii)

‘Sblood! an arrant traitor as any is in the universal world, or in France, or in England! Henry V (IV,viii)

Your majesty hear now, saving your majesty’s manhood, what an arrant, rascally, beggarly, lousy knave it is: (IV,viii)

The word arrant remains in use, as can be seen in these examples from the web:

either [he] is a horrible person, a wretched ghoul…or he is an arrant liar under oath,…

The man’s an arrant womanizer…

Their deaths are a tragic commentary on the arrant cowardice of “freedom fighters” and the inept leadership of those utterly undisciplined terrorists.

The man opposite shook his head, catching sight of her at the exact same moment that he did so, arrant disbelief in his eyes.

Bottom line: Use errant if you mean wandering, straying, or erroneous. Use arrant if you mean downright, complete, or notorious.

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5 thoughts on “A Knight Errant and an Arrant Knave”

  1. Cool!

    ‘Arrant’ may remain in use among classically-educated UK writers, but I can’t imagine it as the 1st choice of even the most precise (or pretentious) US writer.

    Would ‘blatant’ be a suitable modern analogue to ‘arrant’, or is there some subtlety of meaning that I’m missing?

  2. I think arrant and errant have fallen into disuse because people don’t know which one to choose. Thank you Maeve, for the lesson on these two words, because they are splendid, descriptive adjectives.

    I rarely use the words, but I employ a shabby gimmick to help me remember which word I want: I use the word “arrogant” to help me remember arrant, and “error” to help me remember errant.

  3. Awesome!
    I’ve heard this word before (mostly on television) and I always wondered what it meant. Great post. 🙂

  4. The point is very well-taken. I always suggest using “errant” to mean roaming and homeless– a knight errant didn’t do anything wrong (necessarily). Leave the error-related meaning to the word error. It’s use just make me suspect that the user doesn’t really know what the world means. And arrant? Leave that one alone entirely unless you are obvoiusly a very advaned user of the language. Like (in the US) using “compleat” properly. Chances are you are just going to look like someone who can’t spell.

    I put up similiar resistance to “enormity”, as opposed to enormousness, being used to describe physical size, even tho the more anarchist dictionarie’s (MW again) seem to accept the size-related meaning as secondary.

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