Etymology Grammar Linguistics

You no good rat!

Q: I’m wondering how the use of “you” originated when calling someone a name, as in “You no good rat!”

A: Here the pronoun “you” is being used as a vocative, a word that identifies the one being called out to or addressed.

The word “vocative” comes from the Latin verb vocare (to call), which is also the ancestor of words like “vocal,” “vocalize,” “vocation” (a calling), “evoke” (call forth), and “invoke” (call upon).

When “you” is used as a vocative, it often appears side by side with the noun or noun phrase it refers to, as in your example, “You no good rat!”

In grammatical terms, the vocative “you” is being used in apposition to (roughly, as the equivalent of) the noun phrase “no good rat.”

We’ve written several blog items, including one in 2008, that deal with apposition, a grammatical construction in which one word or phrase is the explanatory equivalent of another.

The word “you” here can be either singular or plural. Both constructions have been around since the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here are some examples from the OED of the plural usage:

“Farwell you Ladies of the Court” (Thomas Preston, 1569);

“Heare me, you wrangling Pyrates” (Shakespeare, 1594);

“You Lords of Florence, wise Machavil, and You Lord Barbarino” (Sir Aston Cokaine, 1658);

“And you, my daughters” (Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 1799);

“You sirs, I said, what are you conspiring about?” (Benjamin Jowett, 1875).

As a singular, “you” is used either once (before the noun) or twice (before and after). The before-and-after version, the OED says, is often meant “in reproach  or contempt.”

Here are citations for the singular usages, some contemptuous and some not:

“My lord and you my lady” (from the French legend Melusine, circa 1500);

“Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you” (Shakespeare, 1590);

“You asse you” (George Chapman, 1606);

“You old Sot you” (John Dryden and William Cavendish, 1667);

“You little hussy, you!” (Oliver Goldsmith, 1768);

“You young hangdog, you!” (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1840);

“You scamp not to write before” (Edward Burne-Jones, 1852);

“I love you for trying, you dear” (Bernard Capes, 1919).

By the way, the old singular pronoun “thou” was also used in a vocative way, a usage that dates back to King Alfred in the late 800s.

The Old English citations won’t be understandable, but here’s one from the 15th century: “thow olde dotyng foole” (John Lydgate, c1425).

And here’s a later one: “Thou lyest, thou iesting [jesting] Monkey thou” (Shakespeare, 1610). 

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