“Bastard” goes legit! (and has some babies of its own)

The June 2019 update to OED3 has many lovely lexicographical additions: the first three listed are ‘ayuh’, ‘bae’, and ‘ball sack’ (if that gives any indication). Twitterati have commented on ‘upper-class twit’ and ‘you (wee) dancer’. But what caught our eye was the adjacent article by senior editor Matthew Bladen on revisions to “bastard, n.” Bladen writes:

bastard has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 150 years, in which a strand of meaning that was still marginal at the time of the first edition of the OED has become central to the word’s existence.

There follows a detailed story of semantic drift, which starts with ideas of suspect marriages and ends with semantically emptied terms of abuse.

But the word’bastard’ itself has (what I’ve called elsewhere) “dubious parentage”. That is, no one knows where it comes from. As Bladen recounts it:

It was once believed that bastard, denoting an illegitimate child, was coined in allusion to a perceived tendency for such people to be conceived on a ‘bast’, or packsaddle, serving as a temporary bed (an early reference to the supposed proclivities of the commercial traveller). However, this is now generally considered to be unlikely, and a more plausible explanation is that the French suffix -ard was added to the Old Frisian word bost, or its Old Saxon equivalent, denoting a morganatic marriage; that is to say, one contracted between people of different social status. 

“Once believed” is a bit rich from a senior editor at OED, since from 1885 until about yesterday OED was touting to the world this very etymology in its entry for “bastard” (revised 1972, republished 1989).

In other words, until right now anyone (other than a professional etymologist trained on this particular issue) consulting an (the?) authoritative source on the English language would have likely accepted (ish) the fils de bast idea.

However, that hypothetical anterior person (reader, it was I) would have also encountered two very interesting quotations s.v. ‘bastard’, illustrating not so much the term, but the crazy meta-etymological history surrounding the term, which continues to today. In OED2:

1662 Fuller Worthies i. 322 He confuted their Etymology who deduced Bastard from the Dutch words boes and art, that is an abject Nature, and verifyed their deduction deriving it from besteaerd, that is the best disposition.    

1764 Burn Just. Peace s.v., The word bastard seemeth to have been brought unto us by the Saxons; and to be compounded of base, vile or ignoble, and start, or steort signifying a rise or original.

These are great, vintage OED citations, and it’s a real shame that OED3 has now omitted them (in its zeal for etymological legitimacy?).

For one thing, they put into context Bladen’s strict view that ‘bastard’ isn’t used as a ‘term of abuse’ until the 19th century — when of course it is highly pejorative from the earliest! Think on poor (not so poor) Edmund:

Why bastard? wherefore base?
When […] My mind [is] as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

But more importantly, the Fuller and Burn quotations are telling explaining the word in a way that mirrors just what Edmund is plotting — a ‘bastard’ turned around from a ‘base start’ to a grand finish, from the worst to the best. Or the bast, or the bost. From the beginning “bastard” is mixed up in its origins, and in stories of reversal.

OED3 has now reversed OED2’s view on fils de bast. Instead of a sure derivation OED3 has a thorough etymological note of some 800-odd words, giving various theories and possible cognates. It is, etymologically speaking, persuasive, comprehensive, and up-to-date. But philologically speaking, I say the omission of the Burn and Fuller quotations erases an important aspect of the word’s historical import: that “bastard” has always been a bit of bastard.

Bastards beget bastards: contemporary consultors of OED will now find a bevy of them: ‘bastard cannon’, ‘bastard canoe’, ‘bastard secretary’, ‘bastard stucco’, and so on. And ‘bastard sword’ (a sword with a blade somewhat shorter than that of a longsword), with a very up-to-date repopularization:

2011   G. R. R. Martin Dance with Dragons 111   Jon clasped the hilt of the bastard sword with both hands and raised it high.

It’s a miss that Martin isn’t quoted under the original sense of “bastard”, since that sense is so central to the stories. The irony in the quotation here is that Jon is himself (thought to be) a bastard. You might call him an illegitimate bastard!

Jon Snow knows nothing about etymology.

One Comment

  • Marc Berger wrote:

    The concept of “Bastardia” which the church said the only word for it in the Latin of the Vulgate Bible was “legitimate”, was put into the first provision considered as the first statute in Statutes of the Realm as Norman French in the Provisions or Statute of Merton in 1275/6 20 Hen 3 Chapter IX and just before Chapter X that inflicted the word attorn into the LEGES ANGLEI as if it was land law but instead the lie that it was common law of the Realm: “And all the Earls and Barons with one voice answered, that they would not change the Laws of the Realm, which hitherto have been used and approved”

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