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Bastard, meaning one begotten and born out of wedlock, is a very old word from Old French (earliest OED citation 1297).

Dastard, meaning one who meanly or basely shrinks from danger; a mean, base, or despicable coward; one who does malicious acts in a cowardly, skulking way, so as not to expose himself to risk, appears to be of English formation and dates from the 15th century onwards (OED).

In the course of the 19th century a useful and idiomatic word, dastard, stopped being used at all (even though its adjectival form, dastardly, lives on (e.g. Whacky Races). During the 1800s all the sense of dastard, including especially it's use as a term of abuse, was subsumed under a similar-sounding word (bastard), whose abusive power until that point had been limited to implying a person was a mongrel, and an (animal of) inferior breed (OED).

This Ngram suggests that the decisive rise of bastard and decline of dastard occurred in the years following the First World War... Is there any specific reason why bastard became so popular and why dastard fell so completely out of use?

  • Dastard survives in dastardly. Bastardly is very rarely heard. – Andrew Leach Sep 27 '17 at 10:55
  • @AndrewLeach -yes, it's odd isn't ? Did you ever watch 'Whacky Races' with Dick Dastardly? – Dan Sep 27 '17 at 11:07
  • @AndrewLeach dastardly was long more popular than dastard and does itself seem to have declined considerably over the decades. – Jon Hanna Sep 27 '17 at 11:16
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It's very hard to say why any word became less popular unless there's a very particular reason why it might (e.g. it is replaced by another word and we can explain its rise, or refers to something that itself is less common than it once was).

There is though a general trend of mildly insulting words becoming less popular. Cad, fink, blackguard, varlet are all examples of mild insults that seem to have fallen in use. Several others are hard to trace because they either already have other meanings (goat and several other animal-based insults, with the possible exception of bitch) or have acquired other meanings or context-specific uses (rogue, villain).

Likely at least part of the answer lies in the greater acceptability of terms generally considered stronger in more context. One might today not bother to say dastard where one can say fucking bastard. Even more so, one might today not bother to write or broadcast dastard were once using fucking bastard would not have gotten past censors.

  • I think this is the key. If you're going to say a word which sounds very much like "bastard", why not simply say "bastard"? "Dastard"'s primary use now is, I think, as a word which "sounds like, but isn't, bastard", usually used for comedic purposes, in a context where actually saying "bastard" isn't allowed (eg pre-watershed tv shows). – Max Williams Sep 27 '17 at 11:19
  • @MaxWilliams: Ye-es... except that, before bastard took over the work of dastard, dastard was - apparently - doing the job fine. At that time, it might even have gone the other way - the insulting 'mongrel' sense of bastard might have attched itself to dastard and so made 'bastard' a simpler and less judgmental descriptor. – Dan Sep 27 '17 at 11:28
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Perhaps a clue could lie in the loss of taboos in language. The early 20th century is still that of censorship in newspapers, cinema and TV. Anything resembling foul language could easily be stricken off a copy.

"Bastard" was lying on the brink between the acceptable and the unacceptable, like many other words. The device of slightly altering the word to avoid foul language or blasphemy -- something called a euphemism and more colloquially (and specifically) minced oath -- is quite old and has been one of the ways to get around those limitations (another has been to use metaphoric expressions or code words).

By Golly => By God

Bull => Bullshit

Clearly the two words bastard and dastard are unrelated etymologically, but it's worth formulating the hypothesis that there has been a more or less conscious attraction of the first on the second, which has kept the obsolete dastard afloat longer than it should have in the normal course of things.

Today, the border markers have been shifted way beyond, so there does not seem any use for "dastard" and "dastardly". The liberation of language has provided the speakers of English with plenty of powerful terms to describe a disagreeable person (including the recently famous "son of a bitch").

Two border markers of today are the F. and the S. words.

  • Please close the friggin' door.

  • Oh, shoot. The bus is late again.

Or the use of (beep) in sound recordings.

  • Are you suggesting that dastard and dastardly are just minced oaths for bastard and bastardly? I don’t think that’s why those words exist or even that when used, that’s what they mean. – Jim Sep 27 '17 at 14:12
  • nnemonic-villains.wikia.com/wiki/Dastardly_Dan. This is how I, as a young kid, first came across this word and if clearly means dastardly and is not a censor-avoiding disguised use of bastard – Jim Sep 27 '17 at 14:19
  • Indeed, they aren't related etymologically, no more than the S-word and "shoot" are related; and the first is not the reason why the second exists. Your comment does not prove or disprove my point. Should formulating a hypothesis be discouraged? – fralau Sep 27 '17 at 15:44

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