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shameless pleading






Too cute to shoot.

Dear Word Detective:  I was watching an old pirate movie the other night while drifting off to sleep, and I heard the term “scallywag.”  Was that just made up for Hollywood or does it actually have a history behind it? — Not losing sleep, but curious, Scott.

Good question.  I love pirate movies, especially the old “Treasure Island” starring Robert Newton, who singlehandedly invented the “Arrgh” brand of pirate talk we’re encouraged to imitate every year on “Talk Like a Pirate Day” (September 19).

“Scallywag” (also spelled “scallawag,””scalawag,” and several other ways) is indeed a real word and not a Hollywood invention.  Its use in a pirate movie may, however, have been an anachronism. The “golden age” of piracy in the Caribbean, for instance, is generally considered to have been from the mid-17th until the mid-18th century, but “scallywag” didn’t appear in print until the mid-19th century.

Today we use “scallywag” to mean a “scamp,” a “rascal” or a “lovable rogue,” a person (usually a man) who may be less than perfectly honest, but whose crimes are fairly minor and lack malice.  At various points in its history, however, “scallywag” has been a term of more serious condemnation.

Interestingly, the first “scallywags” may not have been human.  In the US in the first half of the 19th century, “scallywag” was a term used for undersized or sick cattle (“… ‘scalawag’ was the name applied by drovers to lean and ill-favoured kine,” 1868).  Apparently extending the idea of “scrawny, useless cow” to people, “scallywag” then came into use meaning “a good-for-nothing fellow” or “a disreputable man; a villain.”  After the American Civil War, “scallywag” was applied as a term of contempt to Southern whites who cooperated with, and profited from, the harsh measures of Reconstruction.  Later on, in the late 19th and early 20th century labor struggles, “scallywag” was used as a slur against union activists.  But by the mid-20th century, “scallywag” had settled down to its modern meaning of “charming scoundrel.”

There are several theories about the origins of “scallywag,” but most dictionaries still label the word “origin uncertain.”  Several of more the plausible theories about “scallywag” point to Scotland as the source of the word.  The old Scots dialect word “scallag,” for instance, means “servant” or “rustic,” making it a possible source.  Then again, one of Scotland’s Shetland Islands is named Scalloway, and since these islands are world famous for their diminutive Shetland ponies, there may well be a connection between “Scalloway” and “scallywag” meaning a small, useless horse.  Yet another Scots word, “scurryvaig,” may be even a better bet.  Derived from the Latin “scurra vagas,” meaning roughly “wandering fool or buffoon,” this “scurryvaig” means “a vagabond or wanderer.”  Of course, it’s entirely possible that two or more of these words influenced the development of “scallywag,” so we may never be able to trace its precise family tree.

12 comments to Scallywag

  • Mike Grant

    No…! Scalloway isn’t an island – it’s a village in the Shetland Islands.

  • John Bradley

    Yes, I lived in Scalloway for two years. The name comes from the Old Norse skalavagr. I reckon it’s from the days of sailing ships when cabin boys would be taken on board there. Shetland ponies and collies are smaller than the mainland varieties, hence a scallywag became any small, impish creature.

    More controversially, I wonder if in the slave trade, scallywag became ‘galley wag’ which then became gollywog, a small amusing fellow on the slave ship?

  • Bob

    Could it be related to the Greek word, ???????, “sko-LEE-as’, which means “morally bent or twisted; crooked, unscrupulous, dishonest”? You’ll find that word in the Bible – 1 Peter 2:18 and elsewhere, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust [???????].” What do you think?

  • Shelly

    In reply to original post: It was said that the term “was applied as a term of contempt to Southern whites who cooperated with, and profited from, the harsh measures of Reconstruction.” This is incorrect from an objective sense of civil rights. The laws that were being passed during Reconstruction were not harsh, at all. While it does depend on the geographic conditioning of the people, the passing of citizenship and voting rights for “colored” peoples is quite fair and not “harsh” by any means. Again, this does depend on one’s perspective, as giving rights to someone who was raised to think a person of color was meant to be a slave, would be wrong. Furthermore, as slavery goes, it was a major form of capitalism for the South. Having a set of slaves means you can pocket your profits.

    To reply to Bob: I don’t recall the word, scalawag, in the bible, but please remember the bible wasn’t originally written in English.

    Great to see us having a meaningful discussion on a term that many people think was a pirate term!

  • Jim

    “Harsh measures of Reconstruction” do not in any way refer to voting rights, nor to “civil rights” in the modern definition of that term. Abraham Lincoln pronounced the Nation “Reconstructed” after the Southern armies surrendered, and State Legislatures ratified the Constitutional Amendments passed in their absence. But after his assassination, forces prevailed in Congress to treat the Southern states as Conquered Provinces, to punish the aristocracy for prosecuting the War, and to exact “spoils of war” for their own profit. Ex-slavery was a very minor consideration. Agents from the North “Carpet-baggers” were sent in to collect taxes, multiplied many times, and to confiscate land and anything else of value, in order to destroy what was left of the economy, and to punish anyone who had anything left after the War. Scalawags were Southerners who cooperated, usually whites who had nothing before the war, and were hoping to profit from the situation, at their neighbors’ expense.

  • lynn

    another meaning of scallywag is used to denote a support under the bow of an old Pirate ship in dry dock.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with jim.

  • Jack

    I’m certain the word scallywag comes from the old Persian skalywagg meaning a lowlife street market tout and moneylender dressed in flash clothes and coming from Liverpool.

    • Andrew C

      I’ve not found the term in relation to Old Persian – but if that’s the case – seems plausible :

      1/ Persian terms much adopted in UK slang in the 19th C – vis things like Blighty, Baksheesh, Cushy, Julep. These adopted from the British empire and brought back with the troops.

      2/ The term “Scally” is almost exclusively use in Liverpudlian dialect to refer to the local variety of lovable rogue.

  • “Wag” is a Gaelic word meaning “a little cave” and the term “wag” is applied to Pict stone long-houses built in far-north Scotland from the Iron Age through the so-called Dark Ages (Early Medieval). This area was also frequented by Norsemen who built settlements. “Skal” is Norse for wilf. So a “scallawag” (scallywag) might by a cave wolf – an outlier, an outlaw, a person on the fringes.

  • Thank you. I love understanding language in depth.

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