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The word Luddite originated in the nineteenth century as a label for an organized group of English workers and their sympathizers who set out to destroy manufacturing machinery in the midlands and north of England between 1811 and 1816. These enemies of the new technology were called Luddites, Ludds, and Ludders. Luddite is the term that has survived.

The noun Luddite has come to mean anyone who opposes the introduction of new technology, especially the kind that results in the loss of jobs.

The abstract noun Luddism refers to the type of thought that questions the commonly held belief that unfettered technological progress is inherently good for the human race.

In current usage, the word Luddite is used disparagingly. The term neo-Luddite is sometimes applied to modern thinkers who question the belief that unfettered technological progress is a good thing.

An explanation published in 1847 asserted that the term Luddite originated in the name of Ned Ludd, “a person of weak intellect,” who broke into a house “about 1779” and destroyed two weaving frames. As the OED puts it, “The story lacks confirmation.”

I think a more likely source than mythical Ned Ludd may be the mythical King Lud.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, King Lud was the founder of London and was buried at Ludgate, one of the major entrances to London. In 1378, a prison for petty offenders—such as debtors—was established in the gatehouse at Ludgate. Prisoners there came to be known as Ludgathians.

Note: The connection between Ludgate and King Lud persisted until the late 17th century. When the gatehouse was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666, a statue of King Lud and his two sons was placed on the eastern side. When this gate was deliberately demolished in 1760, Lud’s statue was moved to the church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street, where it may still be seen.  

In the seventeenth century, Ludgathian was a synonym for debtor. Ben Johnson uses the word in his comedy Every Man Out of His Humor (1600):

Always beware you commerce not with bankrupts, or poor, needy Ludgathians.

The OED etymological note points out that during the 1811-13 riots, the nickname “Captain Ludd” or “King Lud” was commonly given to the ringleaders of the Luddites.

It’s a roundabout connection between Ludgathians and Luddites, but the Luddites feared that the mechanization of their crafts could reduce them to penury. Imprisonment for debt continued to be a possibility for the jobless in England until 1869.

Note: I recently heard a speaker on NPR pronounce the word “LOOD-ite.” The lud in Luddite is pronounced with a short u, as in mud.

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