in Wacky Word Wednesday

Someone who cuts in front of you on the line to the movies is undoubtedly rude, but that rare individual who looks you right in the eye, steps into line ahead of you, and smirks is something else entirely; a level way beyond rude. And though such people can really ruin your day, it’s important to remember that they probably weren’t always that way; people are a product of their environment after all. That’s also true for today’s Wacky Word Wednesday, a word that means so much more than rude: churlish.

quo topChurlish

[chur-lish]

-adjective

Rude in a mean-spirited and surly way.

quo botChurlish

Long ago – sometime before 1300 – churlish had a very different meaning. It meant, simply, “man.” But between then and 1500, the word began to take on negative connotations; people began saying it with a faint sneer until, finally, churlish had taken on its current meaning. It was immortalized in 1609 in William Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida when Cressida’s servant, Alexander, describes the warrior, Ajax:

“…he is as valiant as a lion, churlish as the bear, slow
as the elephant—a man into whom nature hath so crowded
humours that his valour is crush’d into folly, his folly sauced
with discretion.”

Scholars think the word’s meaning changed with shifts in English society. Prior to 1300, everybody in England was a free man – a churl – who worked on communal farms. At that time, feudal lords began to gain more power, establishing manors and exacting taxes from the common folk. As time went by, with the landed lords increasingly looking down on peasants, churl took on negative undertones meaning a low, crude person. So its adjectival form, churlish, became what it is today.

As usual, here are a few example sentences putting our wacky word into action:

  • The idea that America might expect something else in return is considered to be, well, churlish. (Forbes)
  • And thus it is particularly tricky to deal with a bad volunteer; it seems churlish to punish someone for a donation of time and effort. (New York Times)

Remember this story the next time you run into a churlish person. There’s probably a reason they act the way they do. We hope that this knowledge lessens the sting and that you join us next week for another exciting edition of Wacky Word Wednesday.

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