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The word villain, as described by Google, comes form the archaic word villein.

Google definition of Villain

Here is the definition of villein:

villein
ˈvɪlən,-eɪn
noun
(in medieval England) a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord or manor to whom he paid dues and services in return for land.

I presume than the Latin meant a slave/worker in the villa (which would have been the equivalent to manor).

The current usage of villain has connotations of someone who has money or power already. In that light, it feels like the subject of the word has flipped from the tenant to the to lord.

How did this transformation of meaning come to pass?

  • You might want to look at the entry for villain and villein at the Online Etymology Dictionary: etymonline.com/… – JLG May 7 '15 at 22:53
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    The most important phases of the sense development of this word may be summed up as follows: 'inhabitant of a farm; peasant; churl, boor; clown; miser; knave, scoundrel.' Today both Fr. vilain and Eng. villain are used only in a pejorative sense. [Klein] etymonline.com/index.php?term=villain&allowed_in_frame=0 – user66974 May 7 '15 at 22:55
  • @Josh61 Why do people post half answers as comments?? – Pureferret May 7 '15 at 22:56
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    Well, because the answer should be self-evident if you click the links. Note that the meaning has shifted, and that the "rustic" part of it has fallen away. From something merely contemptible, it has added the quality of evil. It's all just language. We call people assholes even though we don't mean a literal biological anus. – Robusto May 7 '15 at 23:14
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How did the archaic 'villein' transform into villain?

This is the process of semantic change called degeneration or pejoration:

  1. Historical Linguistics. semantic change in a word to a lower, less approved, or less respectable meaning.

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Dictionary

The entry for villain confirms this degeneration process:

c. 1300 (late 12c. as a surname), "base or low-born rustic,"
from Anglo-French and Old French vilain "peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel" (12c.),
from Medieval Latin villanus "farmhand,"
from Latin villa "country house, farm" (see villa).
The most important phases of the sense development of this word may be summed up as follows: 'inhabitant of a farm; peasant; churl, boor; clown; miser; knave, scoundrel.'
Today both Fr. vilain and Eng. villain are used only in a pejorative sense. [Klein]

Another example of pejoration is knave:

"boy" → "servant" → "deceitful or despicable man"

Often words associated with things that are lower on the subjective "nobility scale" deteriorate into more and more ignoble meanings. The feudal tenants were essentially slaves, and this word, which was associated with them, became increasingly ignoble over time, until it reached evil criminal.

Villain is a person associated with the villa in the same way as chaplain or captain are a person associated with the cap. Starting at this origin yields a reasonable degeneration:

villain: farmer → peasant → clown → miser → crook → anti-hero

Perhaps the currently popular tenets of socialism have begun to strike back on behalf of the peasants by labeling the rich and powerful as the villain. That would be a reasonable connotation, but it has not necessarily "flipped" the definition.


Our generation has experienced this process of degeneration recently in the expression jones:

noun

A fixation on or compulsive desire for someone or something, typically a drug; an addiction:
a two-year amphetamine jones verb

[NO OBJECT] (jones on/for)
Have a fixation on; be addicted to:
Palmer was jonesing for some coke again

Origin

1960s: said to come from Jones Alley, in Manhattan, associated with drug addicts.

Jones Alley is a small dead end street in the middle of NoHo, a curently upscale neighborhood in Manhattan. The neighborhood flourished from its establishment in the 1820s until its first peak in the 1910s, then it declined through the 1960s. At the neighborhood's nadir, Jones Alley was supposedly a convenient lair for drug dealers, and one of the many nicknames of heroin was jones:

surname, literally "John's (child);" see John.
Phrase keep up with the Joneses (1913, American English) is from the title of a comic strip by Arthur R. Momand.
The slang sense "intense desire, addiction" (1968) probably arose from earlier use of Jones as a synonym for "heroin," presumably from the proper name, but the connection, if any, is obscure. Related: Jonesing.

Etymonline.com

Although the details of this etymology are not 100% certain, our relatively recent cultural experience with addiction can help us visualize the linguistic process of pejoration toward the end of the word's development:

jones: John's (child) → surname → street name → nickname for heroinaddiction

  • The analogy with knave is very explanatory. What, I guess I'm not aware of is the old use of Villain to mean someone other than this. – Pureferret May 8 '15 at 9:06
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    The quintessential 19th century villain :-) Pay the rent...I can't pay the rent...Then I'll tie you to the tracks and let the 7:10 express collect the rent! By the 19th century, the degeneration had fully embraced the evil character of a fictional conflict. The process started way back in the 14th and 15th centuries.*Jones* deteriorated from a street in Manhattan all the way to an addictive fixation in 50 years. We have documented that semantic change for posterity's sake, but our ancestors did not think to do that for us. – ScotM May 8 '15 at 14:48
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Wikipedia notes that the French and Italian cognates simply mean e.g. naughty, rude, or ill-mannered, rather than the malicious evil it refers to in English. This suggests a transitional state, where it went from describing people of actual low social class, to describing behavior that was seen as "low-class", and with that negativity having taken root, was further expanded to refer to actual evil actions.

There was also a historical belief until only a few centuries ago that people of high social classes were also of inherently better moral fiber than those of the lower classes - the converse can be seen in, for example, the modern meaning of words like "noble".

  • "went from describing people of actual low social class, to describing behavior that was seen as "low-class", and with that negativity having taken root, was further expanded to refer to actual evil actions." This explains it! – Pureferret May 8 '15 at 15:47

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