Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing: The Other B-Word

Susie Dent’s potty-mouthed dictionary is back at the letter B. Not that word, though. The other one…

Susie Dent's Introduction to Swearing: the other B-word

Susie Dent’s potty-mouthed dictionary is back at the letter B. Not that word, though. The other one…

Back in the Middle Ages, being nominated the Bastard of Britain would have got you some admiring glances and a fair few curtsies. True, ‘bastard’ would have signalled that you were born illegitimate, but that wasn’t necessarily a problem. In fact, upgrade it with a capital letter, and deference was assured, for Bastard was a formal title for illegitimate but notable sons of a king or high-ranking nobleman. William the Conqueror, born out of wedlock to Robert, Duke of Normandy and his mistress Herleva, was nonetheless regarded as the Duke’s rightful heir; consequently he was also known as William the Bastard. 

Not that William had a particularly smooth ride. At the siege of Alençon, on the border of Normandy, he was taunted from the battlements by his enemies, while residents are said to have hung animal hides from their walls. Rather than objecting to William’s illegitimate status, his critics were mocking his mother’s poor lineage, as the daughter of a tanner. William was therefore considered a mongrel mix of noble and ignoble blood, which mattered far more than his father falling off the matrimonial bed.

William reveals himself to his soldiers at the Battle of Hastings, Bayeux Tapestry

In fact, in this period, ancestry trumped illicit sex many times over. Illegitimate children, even those of monks and nuns, inherited estates without censure. When it finally came, the change in public attitude did not stem from the Church: rather it began with those who wished to challenge such inheritances and claim the wealth for themselves. From the 13th century onwards, the bastard’s reception began to sour.

The etymology of ‘bastard’ was, until very recently, a slam-dunk. It was firmly believed to have emerged in medieval Latin in the form bastum. A bastum was a pack-saddle, traditionally used as an improvised bed on long journeys. The connection in the imagination, it seems, was the casual sex enjoyed by travelling muleteers and women serving at local taverns. A fils de bast, or ‘pack-saddle son’, was one born as a consequence of such fleeting hook-ups.

Workhouse Women in St. Giles’s Church by Charles Holroyd. © Trustees of the British Museum

If true, this would put ‘bastard’ in the same category as a ‘son of a gun’, apparently used in the Navy for a child born from a brief encounter on a ship between a sailor and a female visitor. Given the child’s uncertain paternity, they were listed in a ship’s log as the ‘son of a gun’, cradled under the breast of a gun-carriage. Eventually the stigma of illegitimacy did for that expression, too.

As colourful as it is, the story of the fils de bast has now been rejected through lack of evidence. Disappointingly, that leaves the dictionary entry for ‘bastard’ with the words ‘etymology unknown’, which means investigation continues, just as the meaning of the word has also kept evolving.

Want more foul-mouthed indecency? You can find all of Susie Dent’s Introduction to Swearing here!

 In the 17th century, Edmund’s famous speech in Shakespeare’s King Lear illustrates the extent to which the reception of the bastard was shifting.  He rails against the indignity of belonging to a family that acknowledges him but fails to legitimize him, leaving him unable to inherit.  

“Why ‘bastard’? Wherefore ‘base’?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true

As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us

With ‘base’, with ‘baseness’, ‘bastardy’, ‘base’, ‘base’?’

Riz Ahmed performs Edmund’s soliloquy

Edmund is traditionally seen as the villain of the play, but he is also an outcast, born outside traditional morality and therefore, perhaps, free to deny it. But however much sympathy he may or may not deserve, ‘bastard’ by this point had resolutely become a term of abuse, used in contempt to imply cruelty and callousness, and ruthless self-interest. Nonetheless, it continued to be used to designate ‘illegitimate’ birth right up until the 20th century. The Yale Law Journal in 1933 found it acceptable to state that ‘As a general rule, bastards are not within the meaning of the terms ‘child’ and ‘children’ when used in a will’.

‘Bastard’ was also harnessed for various objects, most conveying inferiority or impurity, including a mongrel dog, a sweetened mixture of unspecified wines, a sail used when there is little wind, and a coarse type of sugar. A bastard disease is one that copies the symptoms of another, and is therefore not the ‘real thing’; a bastard branch is one that grows where it’s not wanted.

And in that spirit ‘bastard’ has pretty much stayed, save for the occasional milder outings when it expresses commiseration towards someone (‘poor bastard’), or affection and admiration – ‘you lucky bastard!’. Which means that, like most of our swears, ‘bastard’ has turned out to be quite versatile. Unlike most, however, it tends to stick to its grammatical groove. Whilst ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, ‘piss’, and even ‘cunt’ are available in many parts of speech, ‘bastard’ is happiest as a noun. That said, ‘bastardly’ the adjective was once a serious rival to ‘bloody’, ‘ruddy’, and ‘sodding’, but it never quite held its own (which is a shame, as ‘Dick Bastardly’ would have made an excellent villain). 

A final note: if you ever see the mock Latin motto Illegitimi Non Carborundum, take heart. Used as a rallying cry in the US army, it is intended to say ‘don’t let the bastards get you down’.

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