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Why villains are vilified

Q: Your article on the many uses of “nick” on British crime shows reminds me of the way cops in the UK call perps “villains.” That has to go back—to Shakespeare, at least.

A: You’re right. The word “villain” does go back a long way. It crossed the Channel with England’s Norman conquerors (in Anglo-Norman and Old French, the word was vilein, vilain, or villain).

But the specific usage you’ve mentioned (the slang use of “villain” to mean a career criminal) is relatively recent, dating back no further than the mid-20th century. Here’s the story.

When “villain” first showed up (spelled vyleyn in Middle English), it meant “a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from Handlyng Synne (1303), a long devotional poem by the medieval monk Robert Manning of Brunne:

“Goddys treytour, and ryȝt vyleyn! Hast þou no mynde of Marye Maudeleyn.” (God’s traitor, and right villain! Hast thou no mind of Mary Magdalene?)

Over the years, the OED says, the word “villain” came to mean “an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds that “the extended (and now usual) sense of an unprincipled scoundrel or knave, evil person, is implied in the earliest uses of this word.”

As for the slang use of “villain” for a career criminal (the OED uses the phrase “professional criminal”), the earliest citation in the dictionary is from the Jan. 24, 1960, issue of the Observer:

“Suppose … a bogy did get it up for a villain now and again by making sure that some gear was found in his flat?” (A “bogy” is a detective or police officer in UK criminal slang.)

And here’s an example from Horse Under Water, a 1963 spy novel by Len Deighton: “This villain is doing a nice Cabinet Minister’s home.”

In case you’re wondering, the words “villa,” “village,” and “villain” ultimately come from the same classical source, villa, Latin for a farmhouse or farmstead.

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