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The following is from My Fair Lady, where Eliza Doolittle's father, a man of working-class origins, is about to make his appearance. Prof. Higgins and Col. Pickering, our primary interlocutors in this dialogue, sense that Alfred Doolittle is after money for their use of Eliza to settle their little sociolinguistic experiment.

HIGGINS [promptly] Send the blackguard up.
MRS. PEARCE. Oh, very well, sir. [She goes out].
PICKERING. He may not be a blackguard, Higgins.
HIGGINS. Nonsense. Of course he's a blackguard.
PICKERING. Whether he is or not, I'm afraid we shall have some trouble with him.

What is the etymology of this word? Wikitionary, usually extremely handy, informs me that it comes from "black + guard", which is just too thin gruel for my taste. I mean, duh! The question is why are those terms combined to apply to "scoundrels" and "unprincipled persons", as Wikitionary defines it. Can some make the history more detailed for me? Also, would one find this word current in British English, and does it always have a "chummy" or "lighthearted" quality as used in the quotation above?

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I always thought it was spelled "blaggard". I guess blackguard is an alternative spelling. Anyway, the word blaggard in BrE refers to a person who has behaved dishonorably towards a woman. It almost never has a chummy connotation. It is often used by gentleman who feel they have to defend the honor of some lady. e.g. Jane: he touched me! Gentleman: That blaggard! Bring him here, I'll skin him alive! –  Gilead Mar 26 '11 at 17:33
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I'd have to go the other way; "blaggard" is the alternate spelling, being a quite natural formation for people who have heard the word but not seen it. –  Hellion Mar 26 '11 at 17:46
    
@Gilead Can you make what you've written above an answer? I'd love to upvote it. –  Uticensis Mar 28 '11 at 15:35

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

An intriguing question. I've spent some time researching this etymology in dictionaries as well as the scanned documents available at Google Books and there are apparently a number of competing explanations to the origin of this expression.

The one I believe makes more sense, and also the most often quoted, including by nico and the OED, is that in the times when this word started being recorded, courts were frequently on the move, going from one palace to the next and as a consequence large convoys were organised typically opened by heralds, followed by armed guards protecting high profile personalities and ending with a long line of logistics wagons.

Often found along the phrase "King kitchen", this group of followers were in charge of carrying the coal, the pots and kettles and various items of furniture.

By contrast to the lavish livery of the official guard at the head of the convoy, this rag-tag troop at its tail, composed of people having probably a less demanding idea of their appearance would have ironically been called the black guard. Indeed the "rag-tag" expression itself appears to emerge at the same time.

The kind of characters attracted by these living conditions, in which honesty was probably not a competitive advantage, was such that the term soon became a synonym for both menial jobs and low morale.

Some documents I've read on Google Books (looking for "black guard", with quotes) show that there are some records of large scale exactions ascribed to this "black guard".

Where it becomes interesting is that the French word "blague" seems to come from this alternative and secondary "blaggard" spelling. Today, a "blague" is a joke or a prank. When it appears in France in the 18th century, it has the meaning of a lie. It has kept this meaning in the "sans blague" phrase which emphasises that the related claim is no lie ("no kidding"). TBC I guess.

Sources

1. Ben Jonson (under King James)
The word appears in Ben Jonson's masques "Love Restored" in 1612 and "Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists" in 1615.

The works of Ben Jonson, anotated in 1816 by William Gifford contain two interesting foot notes, reproduced below regading the etymologie of what was at the time just an expression.

Vol 2 p 169

enter image description here

Vol 7 p 250

enter image description here

2. Mid 19th Century Notes and Queries
Easily findable here.

  1. Notes And Queries Series 1 - Vol 2 section 39, 27th Jul 1850 page 134
  2. Notes And Queries Series 1 - Vol 2 section 41, 10th Aug 1850 pages 170 to 171
  3. Notes And Queries Series 1 - Vol 7 section 169, 22th Jan 1853 pages 77 to 79
  4. Notes And Queries Series 1 - Vol 7 section 176, 12th Mar 1853 page 273
  5. Notes And Queries Series 1 - Vol 7 section 185, 14th May 1853 page 487
  6. Notes And Queries Series 1 - Vol 8 section 209, 29th Oct 1853 page 414
  7. Notes And Queries Series 3 - Vol 4 section 95, 24th Oct 1863 page 339
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Entertainingly "blague" then re-entered English as "blag", to beg or cadge something, with a late 19th century meaning of "steal" according to Wiktionary. –  user1579 Mar 28 '11 at 16:02
    
@Rhodri, thx. I missed that piece of the story ! But it does make sense. Especially if you look at the dates in the wiktionary entry: the further back in time, the closer to the original "dishonest" meaning. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 28 '11 at 16:09
    
The stuff about their livery was exactly the piece I needed to satisfy my curiosity. Thanks again, Alain. –  Uticensis Mar 28 '11 at 16:22

The OED says:

blackguard, n. and a.
[lit. Black Guard, concerning the original application of which there is some doubt. It is possible that senses 1 and 2 began independently of each other; or the one may have originated in a play upon the other, black being taken with a different sense; it would be difficult to assign priority to either. It is even possible that there may have been a guard of soldiers at Westminster called the Black Guard, or that, as some suggest, the attendants or torch-bearers at a funeral, or the link-boys of the streets, may have had this name.]
[cut]
1. The lowest menials of a royal or noble household, who had charge of pots and pans and other kitchen utensils, and rode in the wagons conveying these during journeys from one residence to another; the scullions and kitchen-knaves. Obs.
2. A guard of attendants, black in person, dress, or character; a following of ‘black’ villains. Obs.

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I always thought it was spelled "blaggard". I guess blackguard is an alternative spelling. Anyway, the word blaggard in BrE refers to a person who has behaved dishonorably towards a woman. It almost never has a chummy connotation. It is often used by gentleman who feel they have to defend the honor of some lady. e.g. Jane: he touched me! Gentleman: That blaggard! Bring him here, I'll skin him alive!

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No, blackguard is the only accepted spelling (at least in Britain). But blaggard is the only accepted pronunciation, so there's room for confusion there. –  TimLymington May 14 '11 at 22:43

from New Oxford American Dictionary:

ORIGIN early 16th cent. (originally as two words): from black + guard . The term originally denoted a body of attendants or servants, esp. the menials who had charge of kitchen utensils, but the exact significance of the epithet [black] is uncertain. The sense [scoundrel, villain] dates from the mid 18th cent., and was formerly considered highly offensive.

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Comparable to Wetback perhaps –  mplungjan Mar 26 '11 at 15:45
    
@mplu But 'wetback' remains highly offensive ; comparable in that it is a compound? –  jbelacqua Oct 1 '11 at 0:15

The most recent explanation suggests (to me) that it may also be derived from "Black Heart" - contracted in Old English to Blackguard or Blaggard - then "to blag" - equally plausible.

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Do you have sources? –  American Luke Nov 10 '12 at 17:41

protected by RegDwigнt Feb 7 '12 at 16:23

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