Translate this web page into any of the languages listed in the drop-down menu below. The machine translations are not perfect, but they are reasonably accurate.
The late French linguist Albert Dauzat came up with the most picturesque origin of the word bastard. Dauzat’s notion was that the insult derived from an Old French word bast meaning ‘packsaddle for a mule’ or ‘saddlebag slung over a mule’s back’ + the negative French suffix -ard. Thus a bastard was probably the love child of a man who herded mules and one night enjoyed a carnal connection with some highway hussy using his saddlebag as a pillow during their sex. No kidding! Was this a particularly weird way to name an illegitimate offspring in medieval European languages? Too bizarre to have ever accounted for the word’s accurate origin? No, not at all.
Compare some other European words for a wretch begotten out of wedlock.
Old French had a word coitrart ‘quilt-child.’
German has Bankling ‘bench-child,’ suggesting a quick copulatory alliance on a tavern table. Low German had Mantelkind ‘cloak-child,’ summoning up the picture of a torrid coupling under a greatcoat in a ditch at the side of a medieval highway.
Even the Vikings had a word for bastardy. In Old Norse hrissungr means ‘brushwood-child.’ Ragnar got lucky in the shrubbery.
Victorian English sniffed haughtily at such corporeal wallowings and gross affinities and, sneering through its tortoise-shell lorgnette, termed the loathsome product a ‘love child.’ In British legal terminology, the word bastard referred specifically to an illegitimate but acknowledged-by-the-father son of noble gentry or royalty. Some etymologists state that this fils de bast ‘child of a packsaddle’ is dubious both chronologically and geographically.
Differing proposals for the root of ‘bastard’ abound. The notion is posited that a Germanic root *bast ‘marriage’ is the origin, with the pejorative suffix –ard added to mean that it was the child of a ‘bad’ marriage with a wench of low estate or that a bastard was the peasant offspring of a Christian and a pagan, a conjointure not sanctioned by holy ritual. But that guess reads to me as a conceit no sillier than the packsaddle one.
Others offer a ‘lost’ Proto-Germanic word for barn, namely *bansti, that may be akin to Gothic bansts ‘barn son.’ So that a bastard is a ‘son of the barn,’ whose straw-bedded conception featured a clodhopper diddling a milkmaid in a haystack.
Where Did –Ard, the Suffix, Come From?
The Old French operative, negative suffix –art or –ard was copied from the Germanic adjective –hart or –hard, an extremely frequent component of two-part Teutonic warrior names like Richard. Remember that the two roots in each Germanic binomial name did not have to make clear sense; they merely had to be taken from an agreed-upon list of “name” roots. Richard = Reich Germanic ‘kingdom’ + -hardt Germanic ‘enduring, tough, hardy.’ Gerard is similarly Gar ‘sword’ + -hard. Everard or Everett is Ebur Germanic ‘wild boar’ + -hardt. Leonard means ‘brave as a lion’ from German Leonhard = leo, leonis Latin ‘lion’ + -hard.
In Old French this usually negative suffix –ard was extremely productive, for example in French words like bastard, couard, canard, mallard, mouchard, and vieillard. After the Norman Conquest these words poured into Britain and, by the time of Middle English, we had borrowed wizard, placard, standard. Then, in forming new English words, the ending –ard came to mean ‘one who performs acts to excess or to his discredit’ in words like buzzard, drunkard, laggard, and sluggard.
Most provocative of all is that many of the English nationality names may have begun as insults, as depreciatory snubs like Spaniard, Lombard, Savoyard. The semantic weight of ‘something hard’ survives in other words with this suffix, e.g. billiards, petard, poniard and tankard.
This word for a craven, white-livered weakling goes all the way back to the Latin word for tail, cauda, perhaps because a coward turns tail and runs away with his tail between his legs. The line of derivation may look like this: Old French coart/cohart/cuard/cowairt/couard > Provençal coart > Italian codardo = coda + -ardo pejorative suffix> Italian coda > Latin cauda.
Some Familiar –ard Words in English
Lubbard – a big, clumsy oaf
Wizard — sage or magician, but wizard began as an insult equivalent to ‘smart ass’ or ‘big brain’, from the adjective wise + -ard.
Lizard — sometimes assimilation of the –ard suffix occurred, as in the form of lizard from Old French lesard (modern French lézard, lézarde) and Italian lacerta, both from Latin lacertus and lacerta. The usual ending in Old French would have seen a form like *lesert, but people thought it was the –ard ending and pronounced it that way.
Mallard = Middle English < Middle French mallart < Anglo-Norman malle male + French suffix -ard, hence a meaning like ‘excessively masculine in behaviour.’ Our ending is usually quite pejorative and in the word mallard may be also. In this species of common wild duck, Anas platyrhynchos (Latin and Greek ‘flat-billed duck’) the “very” male mallard is deeply interested in duck sex but makes the female brood the eggs, raise the ducklings and feed them, while he swims lazily about the pond preening his feathers. Mallards were the source breeding stock of most domestic duck hybrids in the West.
Mustard — Mustard got its name because the original condiment was ground mustard grains mixed with most or must, unfermented grape juice, hence most + -ard. It entered our language after 1066 CE as Anglo- Norman French mustarde, mustard, mostart, moustard. The postclassical Latin mustardum was a medieval form borrowed from French and reLatinized. The word did not exist in ancient Rome, where the Romans borrowed the Greek word for mustard. Mustard in classical Latin was sinapi.
Hence the spurious etymology seen so often on the internet is a deeply ignorant guess, namely: must ‘grape juice’+ ardens Latin ‘fiery.’ So mustard is fiery grape juice, is it? This utter claptrap is found in bad dictionaries and on word websites that are not reliable, such as the infamous “podictionary” whose writer, with no discernible scholarship in word study, is taken in by every folk etymology that comes down the pike and who appears to do NO investigative research into etymology but instead riffles through pop word books, copying whatever origin is colorful, no matter how ignorant. All one need do to know that sinapi is the Latin word for mustard, not mustardum, is to look it up in a cheap seven-dollar English-Latin paperback dictionary. The pod person who compiles “the podictionary” could not even be bothered to do that. What a schlub! What contempt he displays for his readers. Mustardum as a form did not exist until the 12th or 13th century.
A Few Uncommon English –ard Words
Ballard- obsolete word for a bald-headed person from bald + -ard
Bullard – keeps a bull, shortened from bullward; nothing to do with –ard suffix
Bombard – old word for bumblebee
Canard – is the French word for ‘duck’ as well as its other meanings like ‘hoax’ or ‘false story.’ Its roots are Old French verb caner ‘to quack’ + -ard as operative suffix, hence le canard is ‘the quacker.’
Clochard – French word for ‘beggar’ used by Hemingway from clocher French ‘to limp.’
Bugiard – a liar
Croisard or crusard – neat but obsolete insult for a Crusader
Dizzard – a dizzy dolt, a fool, a simpleton ---- obsolete but worth reviving
Doddard – a pollarded tree
Babillard – chatterer, a bird name
Blinkard – an obsolete word for a doddering old, blinking fart. A word well worth reviving, due to the paucity of insult words in English.
Boggard – a bogey, a goblin
Boinard – obsolete word for a fool
Buffard — a rare word for a silly fellow
Here’s one from French: le Père Fouettard ‘Father Flogger,’ is a continental French bogeyman, an evil man dressed in black who stuffs bad children into a big bag and wallops them with a stick or a whip. He is a nightmare version of the punitive father.
I wish to end this piece by coining a cheap new word. I hereby propose the hybrid word schleppard for a goof-off who drops the ball, a loser who never puts the puck in the net. Perhaps some religious saviour having an off day could have been called The Good Schleppard? Or perhaps not? Guards! Seize the coiner of that neologism!
For readers interested in French, there is a great deal of material on my website about Quebec French. Just click below to begin.
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
Any comments, additional word lore or book orders?
Please email me at email@example.com
Click Titles Below to Read My Recent Columns
I invite you to tour my site and select from the hundreds of word stories here.
To begin, click on the Word List banner below.
Then perhaps browse the site map with its links to every page of my website.