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Q From Frank Bohan: Can you throw any light on the origin of the word rogue? I’ve looked it up in several dictionaries which give the origin as French, or Celtic via Breton. On the other hand, some dictionaries claim its origin is unknown. The question is raised by a listing of words I found on the Internet, which otherwise seems accurate, claiming that the word comes from Sinhalese, meaning originally an elephant which had been expelled from the herd.

A It sounds confusing. But with a bit of investigation we can make sense of all these suggestions — even the elephants.

Let’s take first the basic meaning of rogue, an unprincipled or dishonest man. This can be traced back to the sixteenth century, to a thieves’ cant that invented a series of words for categories of villains. The rogue was said to belong to the Fourth Order of Canters and was a beggar, idle vagrant or vagabond. By Shakespeare’s day it had become well established in standard English with a meaning much as today’s, and had already developed a playful sense as a term of mild reproach.

It’s sometimes suggested that it was originally a Celtic word, and the Breton rog, haughty, is put in evidence (though that word is probably not the direct source, just its cousin); the related French word rogue is also suggested as an possible origin. But such theories have been superseded by a better understanding of the roots of cant. It seems it comes from a slang term roger, a beggar who pretended to be a poor university student in order to play on people’s feelings. This can be traced to the Latin rogare, to ask (and so was said with a hard g, not like the proper name).

Now to the elephants. There is a specific sense of rogue that refers to a solitary elephant that is savage or destructive. This can’t be the source of our word, since it’s only recorded in the nineteenth century, long after rogue had become part of the language. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests this sense was actually based on the existing meaning of rogue, perhaps influenced by the Sinhalese hora or sora, a thief.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Apr. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 22 April 2000.