Q: Have the terms “henchmen” and “minions” always been pejorative, as they seem to be now?
A: No, when “henchmen” and “minions” first came into English, they weren’t pejorative.
In the 14th century, a “henchman” was a highly ranked attendant who waited on royalty or noblemen on ceremonial occasions. And in the 15th, a “minion” was the esteemed favorite of a monarch or other powerful patron.
Eventually, of course, both took on negative connotations in Modern English, “henchman” more so than “minion.”
Today a “henchman” is one who unquestioningly, even violently, acts on behalf of a perhaps corrupt master. And because a king’s “minion” was usually male, “minion” in early times was sometimes used contemptuously to imply a pampered sexual pet; it later came to mean a servile or fawning subordinate.
So both words have come a long way. Here’s a closer look at their histories.
Etymologically, “henchman” is “horseman” (the “hench” part comes from hengest, Old English for a male horse). Spelled “henxstman” in Middle English, it was first recorded in the English royal wardrobe accounts for 1377-80, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
A wardrobe item describes livery for one “Hans Wynsele, henxstman.” (Hans Wynsele was probably an attendant to King Edward III, whose reign was 1327-77, or his grandson King Richard II, 1377-99.)
However, since “henchman” is a native English word (Old English hengest + man), it probably was current before the late 1370s. As the OED says, the word was documented earlier in medieval Latin and Anglo-Norman forms that had been borrowed from English: Latin hengsmannus (1345-49), hengestmannus (1360), and Anglo-Norman henxtemen (plural, circa 1370).
The original “henchman,” the dictionary says, was “a high-ranking male servant with the role of attendant or page of honour to a monarch, nobleman, dignitary, etc., esp. one employed to accompany that person when riding in processions, progresses, marches, etc.”
Why would a ceremonial attendant have a title that implies a servant who tends horses?
“Although there appears to be no explicit evidence that the office of henchman involved duties relating to horses,” the OED explains, “the royal henchmen are listed as being under the command of the Master of the King’s Horse in the earliest documentary source for the word.”
The dictionary adds that “groom” and “marshal,” terms for two other “positions of honour in the royal household,” both originally denoted “servants employed to tend horses.”
The OED notes that early henchmen were apparently considered high-ranking servants, while those of the later 1400s and 1500s “were typically the sons of noblemen seeking an education in courtly manners.”
The office of royal “henchman” was abolished by Elizabeth I in the 1560s, but the title survived outside royal households. As the OED says, a “henchman” in later use meant “a liveried page or footman who walks alongside the horse of a Lord Mayor, sheriff, etc., in ceremonial processions.”
Pejorative senses of “henchman” began emerging in the 19th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “a devoted or zealous (male) political supporter, a partisan,” or “a person (usually a man) engaged by a politician to further his or her interests by corrupt or unscrupulous means.”
The earliest use of this sense, the OED says, was recorded in the Times (London) on April 3, 1835: “The moment the Government came into power they allied themselves with the most bitter enemies of those feelings; they placed their henchmen at the head of the state, and they crammed their Privy Council with them.”
An even more negative sense appeared in the US in the early 20th century, the dictionary says: “A male subordinate to a criminal or villain, esp. one who obeys his leader unquestioningly and is prepared to engage in violence or crime on his behalf; an accomplice, heavy, or sidekick.”
Oxford’s earliest example is from an American journal: “Strangely enough, Paul Kelly has no police record—he always delegates his duties to a henchman” (Public Opinion, Dec. 5, 1905).
The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper: “Demented supervillain The Joker … conducts his reign of terror flanked by trusty henchmen” (Lichfield Mercury, Aug. 4, 2016).
As for “minion,” it showed up later than “henchman” but took much less time to develop negative connotations.
It was first recorded in a 15th-century comic song satirizing the costumes of servants, who often were dressed better than their masters: “Off servyng men I wyll begyne … For they goo mynyon trym.”
The expression “go minion trim” in that song meant to dress like a minion, defined at that time, the OED says, as “a (usually male) favourite of a sovereign, prince, or other powerful person; a person who is dependent on a patron’s favour.”
The word was adopted from the Middle French mignon (darling). At the time “minion” entered English, mignon was used in France as a noun for “a king’s favourite,” as “a term of endearment,” and as an adjective meaning “pretty, delicate, graceful,” according to the dictionary’s etymological notes.
But as the OED says, the English “minion” could also be used for a simple “hanger-on.” So it’s not surprising that very soon “minion” became a pejorative word.
For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was sometimes used “with contemptuous suggestion of homosexual relations,” according to Oxford. Here are some examples:
“So are the hartes of our popishe protestauntes … hardened … in that they looke yea go backe agayne to theyr sodomiticall minion.” From The Hurte of Hering [Hearing] Masse, by the Protestant martyr John Bradford, written in the early 1550s.
“The king is loue-sick [lovesick] for his minion.” From Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, written sometime before 1593. (Some historians have suggested that Edward II had a homosexual relationship with his “favorite,” Piers Gaveston, whom he made 1st Earl of Cornwall.)
As the OED says, in later use the connotation of “favored” disappeared and “minion” arrived at its modern meaning: “a follower or underling, esp. one who is servile or unimportant.”
Oxford has this late 19th-century example: “It is no wonder if he helps himself from the city treasury and allows his minions to do so.” From a description of a “city boss” in The American Commonwealth (1888), by James Bryce, a Scottish viscount who taught civil law at Oxford.
And this citation was recorded a century later in the British magazine Q (October 1987): “Our first glimpse is an overhead shot of him being shaved and manicured, joking genially with pressmen while his minions fawn around him.”
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