September 24, 2014

Case File #014.09.24: RIBALD

We English speakers in the twenty-first century commonly use the word ribald as an adjective meaning “amusingly and irreverently vulgar or lewd,” but believe it or not, linguists and etymologists trace the word back to the Proto-Indo-European verb root wreip- (sometimes transliterated as wrip-), which meant “to turn.” From that, they say, came the Proto-Germanic verb wribanan, meaning “to bend,” and this in turn passed into Old High German as riban, which literally meant “to rub” but eventually became a euphemism for the sex act and was therefore often used to mean “to be licentious or lascivious.” Speakers of Old French borrowed the Old High German verb but changed its form to riber, and from this they derived the noun ribalt (sometimes spelled ribaut) and used it to mean one of two things: “a licentious or lascivious person” or, more generally, “a rogue or scoundrel.” When English speakers borrowed the Old French noun in the early thirteenth century, they Anglicized it to ribaude (sometimes spelling it ribaud or ribalde) and dropped the sexual associations, thus using it to mean only “a scoundrel or an otherwise worthless person.” During the fifteenth century, however, the English noun began to take on some sexual connotations of its own, and by around 1500, the word's form had changed to the current ribald and it was being used to mean “an irreverently wanton or lewd person.” Not long after, ribald also more or less took on its contemporary adjective sense—Scottish poet William Dunbar gets the credit for the coining, as the adjective apparently first appeared in print when Chepman and Myllar Press (aka Southgait Press), Scotland's first commercial printer, published some of the poet's work in 1508—and by the time the twentieth century rolled around, the adjective was showing up in everyday usage much more frequently than the noun. In fact, though the noun sense still appears in most contemporary dictionaries, few of today's English speakers are aware that it exists and even fewer use it.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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