How did the archaic 'villein' transform into villain?
This is the process of semantic change called degeneration or pejoration:
- 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,"
Anglo-French and Old French vilain "peasant, farmer, commoner, churl,
from Medieval Latin villanus "farmhand,"
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,
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:
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
1960s: said to come from Jones Alley, in Manhattan, associated with
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.
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 heroin → addiction