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shameless pleading

Ne’er-do-well synonyms

Among the nebulons.

I was writing a column recently on the term “ne’er-do-well,” meaning a worthless or disreputable person, when I remembered that every entry in the Oxford English Dictionary Online (www.oed.com) has a link to the OED Historical Thesaurus (OEDHT) entry for that particular word. The Historical Thesaurus, which was completed in 2009 after 44 years of work, is the largest thesaurus in the world, and the online version links every synonym of a word to the synonym’s entry in the OED. It sounds complicated, but using it is very easy, endlessly fascinatingĀ  and weirdly addictive. The OED Online, which includes the OEDHT, is available through many public libraries, so it’s worth checking your local library’s website.

Meanwhile, when I clicked on the OEDHT link next to “ne’er-do-well,” I discovered that it was categorized by the thesaurus under “society > morality > moral evil > evil nature or character > lack of magnanimity or noble-mindedness > worthlessness > good-for-nothing person” and that there were 81, count ’em, synonyms for it dating back to the late 13th century. Makes sense, I guess. Deadbeat nephews aren’t exactly a recent invention.

The earliest term for “worthless fellow” in the list is “bretheling” (circa 1275), which later appeared in the 15th century as “brethel,” derived from the Old English “breothan,” meaning “to go to ruin.” That Old English root also gave us “brothel,” which originally meant a degenerate person of either sex. In the late 15th century “brothel” came to mean “an abandoned woman” and then “prostitute.” A house of prostitution was called a “bordel,” an Old French word, but somehow “brothel” (person) and “bordel” (place) became confused and today a place of prostitution is a “brothel” and “bordel” is obsolete except in its Italianate form “bordello.”

Around 1475 in the timeline of worthlessness we meet a truly wonderful word: “nebulon,” meaning “a worthless person; a fool” (“Why you brute Nebulons, … cannot [you] yet tell how to [edify] an argument?” 1586). It seems a crime that such a concise, modern-sounding word should be classified as “obsolete,” and I plan to introduce it into my business correspondence forthwith. As you might have guessed, the root of “nebulon” is the Latin “nebula,” meaning “cloud or mist.”

The 17th century gave us the odd “ragabash” for a scoundrel, which is probably related to the earlier “bash-rag,” “ragman,” “ragmall,” and possibly “ragamuffin.” All these terms use “rag” to evoke a sense of raggedness and disorder. Today we use “ragamuffin” to mean “a scruffy lad or urchin” of the sort found in Dickens or Disney, but in the 16th century it could apply as well to a not-at-all-cute adult vagrant or drifter of ragged and dirty appearance. The first “ragamuffin” in literature was, in fact, a genuine demon, Ragamoffyn, in William Langland’s 14th century epic Middle English allegorical poem “Piers Plowman.” The “muffin” of “ragamuffin” has nothing to do with cozy cakes and coffee and may, in fact, hark back to the Anglo-Norman “malfelon,” meaning “devil.”

There are dozens of other strange and wonderful synonyms of “ne’er-do-well” in the OEDHT, but the truly strange ones slowly give way to the 20th century dullness of “loser,” “punk” and, around 1964, the evocative but unexciting “schlub” (worthless person, oaf, from Yiddish, possibly originally the Polish “zlob,” meaning “blockhead”). But it’s never too late to bring back “nebulon.”

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