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Hello,

Today’s word, bastard, may offend some readers but it has a fascinating word history.

Let’s get the meaning sorted first. It has two main definitions –

  1. a person born to unmarried parents
  2. a despicable person

Fortunately the social stigma once attached to the first case is lessening in most cultures. Despicable people, sadly, will always be with us.

The word originated in medieval Latin as bastum. A bastum was a pack saddle. Bastums were used as improvised beds during journeys. The ending -ard was added to create bastardus and name the person conceived in such an impromptu sleeping arrangement. Finally, with a short detour through old French, we arrived at bastard in Middle English and it’s been with us ever since.

Curiously the German word bänkling, which also means bastard, literally translates as “child begotten on a bench”. Location matters, it seems.

The meaning of bastard in Middle English, around the 1200s, wasn’t the meaning we understand today. A bastard was the acknowledged child of a nobleman by a woman other than his wife. The term was irrelevant to the ordinary folk and wasn’t seen as a stigma until the late 1500s. William the Conqueror (Battle of Hastings in 1066, and all that) was often referred to in state documents as William the Bastard.

A related term is gimbo which is the bastard child of a bastard, despite sounding like an exotic stew.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

 

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