World Wide Words logo

Rogue

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 But such theories have been superseded by a better understanding of the roots of cant.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.

Page created 22 Apr. 2000

Support World Wide Words.

Donate by selecting your currency and clicking the button.


Buy anything from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you.

Buy from Amazon UK Buy from Amazon USA

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved. See the copyright page for notes about linking to and reusing this page. For help in viewing the site, see the technical FAQ. Your comments, corrections and suggestions are always welcome.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-rog2.htm
Last modified: 22 April 2000.