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Poverty and Bias

I wasn’t really sure what to title this post because it is a topic that can be hard to sum up in a few words. This is something I have wanted to write about for some time, however, and feel that this is probably an appropriate time considering how language is being used today. 


When I think of the word villain I think about the dark character from Spy vs. Spy. Or maybe Gru from Despicable Me, if you are not into older cartoons. However, something I learned the other day from the History of English Podcast, found here, is that the word villain was originally a word for the people of a village who were a part of a serfdom to a lord, i.e., peasants.  In the podcast, the author makes a connection between the words villain and villein stating that they are etymologically connected. My immediate bias says that he is correct. Knowing how poverty has often been twisted in language to meaning a bad person or someone you cannot trust is not a new idea. 

After doing some digging, I was able to verify this information. Villain as an antagonist character does come from the idea of a villein being a low born person. Etymologically, they are the same. Connected to this is probably the word vile, but I could not confirm this. 

While the old English is certainly fascinating, what is even more fascinating is how bias against “low born” subjects has been a part of our language for such a long time. While most people probably would never connect these words due to the distance between one meaning and the next, it makes me wonder what it was like living during time when the word was changing. I often hear this argument about certain words. People say they would never have known. Take for example the use of the word gyp to indicate trickery or theft. If you didn’t know the history of the Roma people, you really couldn’t know the connotations of the word. However, I think the deeper issue here is the power to use these words and twist them into a negative connotation. I wonder when villain started being used in the negative way, if it ever had a positive connotation. 

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