Webster's dictionary gives one definition of villian as somone who opposes the hero giving no qualifications on whether the villian is evil or not. merriam-webster.com

On the other hand, other dictionaries and sites define it solely as as someone who's the opposite of a hero, i.e. evil, disliked etc.





So are both definitions correct? Is Webster's first definition a poor one? (on as side note, can a dictionary have a poor defintion?)

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    M-W is a historical dictionary, and, like OED, often prioritises entries differently from most other dictionaries. The non-villainous sense for villain is probably best avoided. Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:09
  • Yes, a dictionary can have a poor definition. Entries don't pop out of thin air. People write them. Sure, they are highly educated, are overlooked by editors, discussed in committees, etc, Even though they are no longer constrained by paper limits, definitions still seem to prize concision, which while not a bad thing may leave out a lot of nuances. That all said... I'd say villain and evil sure are highly correlated whether necessity is there or not, and it would feel really strange to have one and not the other..
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:19
  • No, you're distorting what the Merriam-Webster definition you yourself linked to says. It provides more than only the one sense you mention. It also says sense 2: "a deliberate scoundrel or criminal," and sense 3: "one blamed for a particular evil or difficulty." If you're going to provide a link to a definition, provide the complete set of senses that are appropriate. Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 18:41
  • The question and its title ask repeatedly about the word 'villian', which, as far as I know, does not exist. Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 18:48

2 Answers 2


From Anglo-Norman English, the OED gives as its original definition of villian as:

  1. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes:

It should not, however be confused with the word villein (no longer in use) - the name of a rank within the English feudal system.

  1. One of the class of serfs in the feudal system; spec. a peasant occupier or cultivator entirely subject to a lord ( villein in gross gross n.4 2e) or attached to a manor ( villein regardant regardant adj. 1); a tenant in villeinage; also applied to a person regarded as holding a similar position in other communities, a bondsman. †Hence formerly in general use, a peasant, country labourer, or low-born rustic.

It is difficult to imagine that the two words are unconnected, however the series of examples given by the OED are quite distinct in following their respective meanings.

Examples of villain from 1303.

a. Used as a term of opprobrious address.

1303 R. Mannyng Handlyng Synne 11557 Goddys treytour, and ryȝt vyleyn! Hast þou no mynde of Marye Maudeleyn.

1320–30 Horn Ch. (Ritson) 857 The begger answered in that tide, Vilaine, cunestow nought ride?

c1380 Sir Ferumbras (1879) l. 5471 Þanne he cryde and gan to sayn: ‘Whar art þow, Charlis, þow vylayn?’

?1553 (▸c1501) G. Douglas Palice of Honour (London) i. l. 645 in Shorter Poems (1967) 46 Ane me fand quhilk said in greif disdenȝeit Auant velane [1579 Edinb. veillane] thou reclus imperfyte. a1593 C. Marlowe Tragicall Hist. Faustus (1604) sig. C3v Villaine, haue I not bound thee to tel me any thing?

a1616 W. Shakespeare Taming of Shrew (1623) i. ii. 19 Now knocke when I bid you: sirrah villaine .

1622 T. Dekker & P. Massinger Virgin Martir iv. sig. K2v Theoph. It matters not, We can discharge this worke without his helpe... Sap. Villaine.

1663 A. Cowley Cutter of Coleman-St. v. xii. 67 Villain, Rebel, Traitor, out o' my sight.

1764 H. Walpole Castle of Otranto i Presumptuous villain! cried Manfred, dost thou provoke my wrath?

1821 W. Scott Kenilworth III. xvi. 325 Drunken villain,..thy idleness and debauched folly will stretch a halter ere it be long.

1855 C. Kingsley Westward Ho! v ‘Villain! give me your papers!’ cried Amyas.

Other modern senses of villain.

b. In descriptive use. (Common from c1590.) Examples from c1400 but later ones:

a1842 T. Arnold Hist. Later Rom. Commonw. (1845) II. 56 The soldiers..told him that..if he played the villain he might win the throne. 1869 J. Ruskin Queen of Air §128 They are not made villains by the commission of a crime, but were villains before they committed it.

c. Used playfully, or without serious imputation of bad qualities. Also applied to a woman. Examples from 1609. 1908 R. Bagot Anthony Cuthbert xxiii. 300 If this afternoon's post does not bring me a letter from Jim,..I shall telegraph to the young villain.

d. (Usually with the.) The character in a play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions form an important element in the plot. Also transferred, esp. in villain of the piece. Examples from 1822:

1978 P. Sutcliffe Oxf. Univ. Press v. i. 173 Ernest Barker and others took on Nietzsche and Treitschke, who could be regarded as the ultimate villains of the piece.

e. A criminal (slang) From 1960: 1977 L. Meynell Hooky gets Wooden Spoon xiii. 156 There'll be a getaway car..waiting close to the house with a villain in it... I don't like thieving villains.

An altogether sense - 2 - relates to a bird - now obsolete.

In summation, yes - it is clear that a connotation of evil is implied in all, other than playful senses of the word - both in medieval as well as modern interpretation.

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    What do you mean by 'principal'? OED lists definitions in chronological order (of appearance in printed matter it has accessed), so how do you judge order of importance? Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:06
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth Edited.
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:11
  • @WS2 - you've done that villian thing too. Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 18:49

Also from the OED:

1.d. (Usually with the.) The character in a play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions form an important element in the plot. Also transferred, esp. in villain of the piece.

There is a difference between a villain and an antagonist. The antagonist is the 'bad guy' relative to the main guy/protagonist--wh. itself can be a slippery distinction--but especially with more modern/postmodern lit, stories that explore whether or not the protagonist is 'the true villain' of a tale are somewhat in vogue. Do note that the OED only stipulates that the character's "evil motives or actions" need "form an important element," not that they be set against the main character.

So, yes, to call someone a villain is to say they're bad/evil--however, it is possible to analyze villains in literature and say that they are actually the hero, and that the ostensible hero is indeed the villain.

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