Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Blaggards, blaggers and blackguards

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Dr Crippen, writing in the Guardian about euthanasia, said:

If we legalise assisted suicide, we risk moving towards a blaggards’ charter.

The Guardian felt the need to point out in its corrections and clarifications column that the good doctor meant to write ‘blackguards’ not ‘blaggards’: a blackguard being someone who acts in a dishonourable way. I’m not so sure Doc C meant anything of the sort.

‘Blaggard’ doesn’t appear in my Oxford Dictionary of English, but it’s defined on the Urban Dictionary website as a villain, rogue or person of dubious morals. Oxford Dictionaries doesn’t actually define the word either, but provides a quotation in which the word appears.

Interestingly, another similar word ‘blagger’ could also just work in this context. One meaning of ‘to blag’ is to use clever talk or deceit to obtain something.

Update, January 2013:

Spotted in Barry Unsworth’s Booker-winning novel, Sacred Hunger (1992), said by the character, Barton (spellings as written):

…we shall have justidge an’ fair play, no more of these blaggard dons linin’ their pockets an’ grindin’ down the people.

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Commonly confused words and phrases

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25 Responses

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  1. Interestingly, my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary says originally “Blackguard” was applied to the lowest menials about a court, who took charge of the pots, kettles etc. Funny how the cleaners always get blamed for everything…

    squirrelbasket

    09/05/2010 at 6:25 am

    • Hi, there — that is very interesting. You sent me back to my Oxford Dictionary of English which, as you say, makes mention of the person in charge of ‘kitchen utensils’. It explains that ‘blackguard’ was originally (sixteenth century) two words, with the significance of the epithet ‘black’ being unclear. It came to mean ‘scoundrel’ or ‘villain’ in the mid-eighteenth century and became a very offensive term of abuse. Thanks, squirrelbasket.

      Deborah

      09/05/2010 at 8:31 am

  2. For a really good example of “Blagger” see “Cameron”.

    Ron

    09/05/2010 at 9:19 am

    • That made me laugh — but only in a totally politically unbiased way in my role as proprietor of Wordwatch Towers.

      Deborah

      09/05/2010 at 9:29 am

  3. Is blaggard, perhaps, simply a corruption of blackguard?

    As for why it’s absent from the ODE, perhaps, as they add new words, words considered obsolete drop out?

    Especially as blaggard, like “heighth” and the ever-popular “whilst” might well be considered a non-word – merely a verbal corruption.

    Just a thought…

    Ron

    09/05/2010 at 11:29 am

    • Hi, Ron — I was thinking exactly the same thing myself: ‘blaggard’ does sound very much as if it has evolved from ‘blackguard’. I just used some heavy machinery to winch down my copy of the proper OED from a bookshelf, and ‘blaggard’ isn’t even in there. It’s a strange one. I did, by serendipity, find ‘blageur’ meaning someone who talks pretentiously, which I have now stored for future use.

      Deborah

      09/05/2010 at 12:07 pm

      • Hmmm… Found a use for “nugget of cobblers” yet?

        Ron

        09/05/2010 at 12:17 pm

        • I am about to post on one such.

          Deborah

          09/05/2010 at 12:30 pm

  4. Hmm…interesting. As soon as I saw ‘blagger’ and blaggard,’ I wondered if both words had been adopted from the French noun ‘blague'(f.) which Le Petit Robert defines as either a small tobacco pouch or a joke. The word’s origin according to LPR is from the dutch word ‘blagen,’ which means ‘to inflate oneself’ or puff one’s self up. (Should you be inserting Cameron’s face here?) It was adopted into French parlance around the beginning of the 18th century. I wonder if the English word ‘braggard’ evolved from ‘blagen’?

    LPR defines the verb ‘blaguer’ as friendly teasing. LPR cites Maupassant: <>

    Jo-Anne

    09/05/2010 at 12:59 pm

    • Yes, it is interesting. ‘Blaggard’ is niggling me — I can’t get to the bottom of it.

      Deborah

      09/05/2010 at 1:03 pm

  5. O’Byrne’s Dublin slang dictionary has it as “chancer, hoodlum.” All of the various definitions have something like “scoundrel” in common.

    I’d guess it’s either a corruption of “blackguard,” or, more likely, “blackguard” is an improvement on it, by the process known as folk or false etymology. (See also helpmate, Welsh rabbit, primrose, rosemary, pea, etc.)

    Michael Farrell

    09/05/2010 at 7:55 pm

    • Hi, Michael — thank you. That folk or false eymology thing is very interesting.

      Deborah

      10/05/2010 at 6:13 am

  6. Pat O’Connor has an interesting blog entry on “blackguard” and other words formed with “black.”

    http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/12/the-light-and-dark-of-language.html

    Michael Farrell

    11/05/2010 at 6:35 am

    • Thanks very much, Michael. And here’s part of a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, called White Comedy:

      I waz whitemailed
      By a white witch,
      Wid white magic
      An white lies,
      Branded by a white sheep
      I slaved as a whitesmith
      Near a white spot
      Where I suffered whitewater fever.
      Whitelisted as a whiteleg
      I waz in de white book
      As a master of white art,
      It waz like white death.

      Read the full poem.

      Deborah

      11/05/2010 at 6:44 am

  7. This got me thinking of the McCourt brothers’ show, A Couple of Blaguards.
    According to Malachy McCourt, “This show is the result of Frank and me listening to the stories of our elders which in turn tunes the ear, the eye, and the tongue to observe and give voice to even the most trivial of events. I think we had more fun than anyone writing and performing Blaguards, which has become an affectionate term for the rowdy, outgoing, and sometimes drinking sort of boys. If you don’t have a good evening, you should have yourself checked to make sure you haven’t died during the day.”

    Maggie Manning

    14/05/2010 at 12:17 am

    • Hi, Maggie — thanks very much. I’ve never heard of that show — or seen the word ‘blaguard’. (Could be a shortened form of ‘blackguard’ or a more exotic version of ‘blaggard’!) I like the last line very much.

      Deborah

      14/05/2010 at 6:26 am

  8. More ‘blag’ talk:

    I just came across this in the novel The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin:

    While the lady at the needle kept up a little running contemptuous comment:

    “Blagueur — farceur — gros bête, va!”

    The translation provided is:

    “Joker — clown — big fool, get on with you!”

    ‘Blagueur’ appears in the Oxford Dictionary of English with the definition: ‘A person who talks nonsense.’

    Deborah

    25/09/2010 at 2:04 pm

  9. Hi Deborah,

    Hate to be picky, but in this context (that of a person), gros bête would be more likely to be “fat beast”

    Ron

    26/09/2010 at 12:19 am

    • Thanks, Ron — I’m not enough of an expert to know. That’s just the translation given in the book. You could well be right.

      Deborah

      26/09/2010 at 9:03 am

    • You obviously do not know or speak French. Lol!
      Deborah is correct in her translation. French words are not to be taken literaly! : D

      court jester

      17/08/2013 at 3:58 am

  10. Oh, I know it’s the book, rather than you – monoglot Anglophones, as ever, getting lost in other languages (though there were French, and Cajun, influences in Chopin’s life, so perhaps she wasn’t monoglot, in which case it’s baffling).

    I find it odd that an author, or even an editor, wouldn’t check. After all, “bête noir” (lit. black beast – a thing to be loathed or despised), had long been adopted into English.

    Ron

    26/09/2010 at 10:01 am

    • Hi, Ron — I think ‘bête’ can also mean something along the lines of ‘dimwit’ or ‘idiot’ or ‘fool’ or similar. In the context of this particular passage, I think the translation given is probably accurate.

      Deborah

      26/09/2010 at 4:23 pm

      • Concur with DB. “Fool” is one common meaning of “bête” (of many). “Gros” is being used as an intensifier, like “truly” or “really.”

        As an aside, Larousse had this cute classical definition: “Animal légendaire dont on menance les petits enfants pour leur faire peur.”

        Michael Farrell

        26/09/2010 at 8:35 pm

        • Hi, Michael — thanks very much. I thought that was probably the case.

          Deborah

          26/09/2010 at 8:38 pm


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