Stand up for bastards! Notes on ‘bastard’ in the June 2019 update

Stand up for bastards! Notes on ‘bastard’ in the June 2019 update

In my first year of secondary school, my classmates and I were delighted to find that one of the drawers in the school’s workshop was labelled ‘bastard files’. As far as I recall, no one was sufficiently motivated to discover what made these files more bastardly than any other kind; the drawer may have been placed between ‘coarse files’ and ‘fine files’, which would have offered a clue, but my memory isn’t clear. If any of us had gone to the library and looked, however, it might have thrown up an even greater surprise: in the first edition of the OED, there was no sense covering the word’s use as a term of abuse. This sense first appeared in the first volume of the second OED Supplement, published in 1972, and so was included in the second edition of the OED when it was published in 1989. The earliest evidence for this sense in the second edition was from 1830, while the updated entry on OED Online takes it back even further, to 1675: how, then, did the editors of the first edition miss it? As I hope to make clear in what follows, bastard has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 150 years, in which a strand of meaning that was still marginal at the time of the first edition of the OED has become central to the word’s existence.

Bastard entered the English language fully in the fourteenth century, but this followed a long period in which it was familiar to English-speakers from French and Anglo-Norman, as a word and also as a byname or surname. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in its entry for the fateful year 1066, refers to ‘Wyllelm Bastard’, now more usually known as William the Conqueror. It was once believed that bastard, denoting an illegitimate child, was coined in allusion to a perceived tendency for such people to be conceived on a ‘bast’, or packsaddle, serving as a temporary bed (an early reference to the supposed proclivities of the commercial traveller). However, this is now generally considered to be unlikely, and a more plausible explanation is that the French suffix -ard was added to the Old Frisian word bost, or its Old Saxon equivalent, denoting a morganatic marriage; that is to say, one contracted between people of different social status. As it happens, this is particularly relevant in the case of William the Conqueror, whose father was a duke but whose mother is traditionally supposed to have been a tanner’s daughter. Furthermore, at the time of his birth, the concept of marriage was not yet as clearly defined as it later became: William’s father Robert acknowledged him as his son and proclaimed him to be his heir, and his youth at the time of his accession was far more of a problem than the nature of his parents’ relationship; his byname appears to have been mainly descriptive, rather than pejorative. If we take the view that the sense of ‘illegitimate child’ is a development of an earlier sense of ‘child of a socially unequal relationship’, then the word’s other main semantic strand, namely ‘something of mixed or adulterated nature’, becomes readily explicable, although this can be no more than conjecture.

One thing that will strike you when you look at the entry for bastard is the sheer number of senses relating to mixture, adulteration, hybridity, unusual size or shape, and the like: bastard has at various times designated a type of wine, a kind of cloth, a particular size or design of ship, a cannon, and even a size of paper, while it has been used adjectivally to denote an enormous variety of things that are unusual, outsize, or superficially similar to something else. None of these senses is especially derogatory, and even the more familiar sense of ‘illegitimate child’ has generally been respectable enough, not only in the medieval and early modern eras but in the period of greatest sensitivity, between c.1750 and the beginning of the twentieth century. Words such as bloody, arse, and bum, to say nothing of coarser terms, were generally avoided entirely during this period, or were printed with dashes in place of several of the letters; marginal sources, such as reports of criminal trials, or what may euphemistically be referred to as ‘specialist literature’, supplies what unexpurgated evidence there is. However, there is no shortage of examples of bastard in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: it appears in Oliver Twist and in Jane Eyre, for instance. Opprobrium attached to the fact of illegitimacy, but not to the word describing it – or not particularly to the word. It was plainly not a nice word, as the following quotation demonstrates:

It is said, that before the duke of St. Alban’s was ennobled, his mother [Nell Gwyn] calling to him in the king’s [i.e. Charles II’s] presence, said, ‘Come hither, you little bastard;’, which the king in a gentle manner reproving her for, she told him she had no better name to call him by: he was soon after created baron of Hedington, and earl of Burford.

James Granger, A Biographical History of England (1769), vol. II, p. 147

Whether or not this exchange actually took place, its dramatic date of c.1676 coincides remarkably closely with the earliest known evidence for bastard as a term of abuse: in a work published in 1675, it is applied by a syphilitic gentleman to an unhelpful doctor. Further examples can be found in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but they are not especially common, and are vastly outnumbered by instances denoting either illegitimacy or hybridity. It is in the period from 1875 to 1950 that we see a decisive shift in the connotation of bastard, as is demonstrated by a number of developments at this time. The first is the use of bastard as an intensifier. An 1877 report of a political meeting notes the uproar caused by one speaker referring to ‘bastard Americans who edited newspapers’ in his talk, described as ‘the most disgusting of the evening’; the reporter’s stance indicates that language of this type was not unfamiliar, but was associated only with the lowest classes. Several decades later, The Mint, T. E. Lawrence’s record of his RAF career as ‘Aircraftman Ross’, contains the earliest known instance* of bastard being used adverbially, in the compound bastard-well, while the adjectival derivative bastarding first appeared in print during the Second World War:

“Busty yelled, asked him if he thought his bloody hut looked like a post-office, or if he, Busty, looked like a bastarding postman.”

Jack Draper, ‘Khaki Horizon’, in J. Aistrop & R. Moore, Bugle Blast (1944) 2nd series, p. 76

Offensive words, and derivatives of these, are frequently used with intensifying force: compare bloody, sodding, and similar expletives, both milder and saltier. The increasing offensiveness of bastard is therefore well illustrated by this development, which is first attested only a few years before the original OED entry for bastard was published in 1885.

The shift from illegitimacy to insult was by no means complete by the mid twentieth century, but there is a perceptible decline in attestation for many non-obsolete senses and compounds after this point. It is difficult to imagine a crossbreed animal (sense A. 4 of the noun) being called a ‘bastard’ nowadays, unless it is also displaying some annoying behaviour, and the OED’s last quotation (dated 1953) corroborates this feeling. Of the many uses of the adjective to denote something of mixed or adulterated nature, or unusual size or shape, our friend the bastard file (at sense B. 4d) is still going strong (and hopefully still amusing schoolchildren), but bastard canoe, bastard stucco, and bastard title have more or less fallen into abeyance. Several of the botanical terms are still in use, which perhaps tells us something about botanists. My particular favourite is bastard sensitive plant, which, as my sister remarked, suggests that such plants can be employed in a much more useful version of the ‘buttercup test’.** Meanwhile, bastard sword, used as early as the fifteenth century to denote a sword not quite as long as a longsword which can be wielded either single- or double-handed, has seen a resurgence thanks to its use in fantasy fiction: the OED’s most recent quotation for bastard sword, taken from George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, refers to Longclaw, the sword of Jon Snow, given to him by Jeor Mormont as a token of gratitude which alludes to Jon’s own dubious parentage. Nevertheless, the general tendency seems clear: as bastard has acquired more pejorative force, its use in other contexts has steadily declined. The first edition of the OED, published at a time before this sea change had occurred, naturally failed to pick up on a strand of meaning that, if the editors were even aware of it, could easily be understood at the time as an extension of the literal sense of ‘illegitimate child’.

There is a certain irony to the fact that, as the social stigma of being born to unmarried parents has declined, the offensiveness of the word bastard has actually increased. As a term of abuse, it has a particular resonance. Many words of this type denote in effect no more than that the speaker or writer dislikes the person in question, or objects to something that he or she has done. However, bastard is associated with a particular set of qualities or behaviours: the typical ‘bastard’ is unfeeling and self-interested, and acts accordingly. The great archetype in English literature is of course Edmund in King Lear, who provides the title of this article: both illegitimate and brutally self-interested, his justification for the latter is that society permits him no alternative.

But this has never been an inevitable consequence of being illegitimate, as an anecdote from Gerald of Wales’ Life of Geoffrey, Archbishop of York demonstrates. Geoffrey was in many respects a flawed character, but he was steadfast in his loyalty to his father, Henry II, who is said to have praised him by saying, ‘My other sons [i.e. Richard, John, and the rest] are the real bastards, and only this one has proved himself to be legitimate and true.’*** Henry, by drawing a distinction between the illegitimate son with demonstrable filial feeling and the legitimate sons out for themselves, adumbrates the shift in meaning that we have witnessed: it is not what you are, but what you do, that now makes you a bastard.

* The OED cites this work with a composition date of a1935, meaning that the text reached its final form no later than 1935, the year of Lawrence’s death. The Mint is believed to have been completed in 1927, but the more conservative dating allows for the possibility that Lawrence revised the text at some point before he died. Whether the work is dated to 1927 or 1935, it still provides the earliest known instance of bastard in adverbial use.

** The ‘buttercup test’ (not currently covered by the OED) consists of holding a buttercup under a person’s chin to see whether or not he or she likes butter, as revealed by the presence or absence of a yellow shadow cast by the flower. Presumably, if you use a bastard sensitive plant, the presence of the shadow tells you something about their character.

*** Alii filii mei se revera bastardos, iste vero solus se legitimum et verum esse probavit.

Giraldus Cambrensis, De vita Galfridi archepiscopi Eboracensis, ch. iii.

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