We’re all familiar with the scandals, heists, misbehavior and murders that bespatter the pages of our favorites crime fiction reads. But what does it really, fundamentally mean to commit some of the most dastardly acts on those pages? The origins of the words we use to describe crimes often spin unexpected tales with their own twists and turns.
In my upcoming etymology book, Words from Hell, I examine the darkest, naughtiest and most stomach-churning aspects of the English language—including a chapter on crime, mischief and misbehavior. The following tales are excerpted from its pages. Enjoy—but don’t get too many ideas…
This word literally means “hashish-user”—sort of.
“Hashishin,” the “Order of Assassins,” and “Assassins” alone are Western European names for the Nizari Isma’ili state, a sect of Shia Muslims who lived in a network of mountain strongholds across Persia and Syria from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Because they were surrounded by enemies, they established a reputation for employing tactics such as psychological warfare and the covert murders—or assassinations—of rival leaders.
The founder of the sect, Hassan-i Sabbah (ca. 1050–1124), reportedly called his followers Asasiyyun, meaning “principled people” or “people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith].” In the twelfth century the Fatimid caliph al-Amir bi-Ahkam Allah derogatorily referred to them as hashishi, “hashish-users.” (He was later assassinated by Nizari agents.) Crusaders and other Western Europeans blended this information into a claim that the Nizari were called hashshashin because they carried out assassinations after smoking or consuming hashish. Marco Polo notably journaled about this process in the 13th century, describing a young man who was put into a trance by a potion made from hashish and sent to assassinate a target.
Beyond these tales, there is no historical evidence that they ever used hashish at all, and especially not that they were involved in any ritual assassinations, but nonetheless the word quickly traveled to Italy and France and then to England.
The term hassais cropped up in Middle English, with the spelling evolving and the sense extending, by the 16th century, to today’s general sense of someone who kills based on political or religious motives.
The word “blackmail” originally had nothing to do with mail as in letters, or for that matter, anything else we’d call mail today.
In the 1500s and extending through the mid-1800s, clan chieftains and other officials in Scotland and northern England were known to run protection rackets against farmers. The practice was called blackmail, with the “black” part referring to the evilness of it.
As for the mail part, in Middle English male meant “rent” or “tribute.” It is from the Old English mal meaning “agreement,” a term originally adopted from Old Norse. So “blackmail” essentially means “evil rent” or “evil tribute.”
This type of “mail” is not at all related to the words “mail” as in letters, “mail” as in armor, or “male” as in gender. The postage type of mail is from the Frankish-derived, Old French male, meaning “wallet, bag or bundle.” “Mail(le)” armor is originally from the Latin macula, meaning “mesh,” comparing the links in the armor to a net. “Male” as in gender is from the Latin Latin masculus (see: male and female). All of these words first appeared English several centuries after the “mail” that’s in “blackmail.”
However, the mail in blackmail is related to the word “meet,” as in to meet another person, and “meal,” an appointed time for gathering and eating.
The spelling likely evolved through the influence of folk etymology, perhaps associating the extortion with correspondence meant to intimidate or exploitative written agreements. By the mid-1800s blackmail had evolved to today’s sense, referring to threats that the offender would publicly expose secrets unless paid.
Imagine yourself hurrying down a street, evading the law, when suddenly an officer seizes a fistful of your cape. But you, being the wily and agile villain that you are, nimbly slip out of your cape and deftly dodge down a dark alley, leaving your pursuer cursing, with only your cape in their hand.
That is exactly the implication of the word “escape,” which is from the Latin elements ex- “out of” and cappa “mantle, cape.”
For a short time in the 1500s, “outscape” was an alternative English variation of the same word.
A felon is from the Latin fellonem, meaning “evildoer.” Beyond this Latin source, its roots are unclear. It could be from a Frankish term for a “scourger,” from a Latin term for a bitter poison, or from the Latin fellare, meaning “to suck.” In the latter case, that would mean that a “felon” is, at least etymologically, a “cock-sucker.”
A heinous crime is, literally speaking, a hate crime. It’s from the Old French word haine, meaning “hate.” While many French words that entered English following the Norman Conquest are from Latin, this one is ultimately Germanic: It was originally a Frankish word, predating Roman influence over Germanic people in the region. As a result, it’s relatively closely related to the Old English predecessor to “hate,” hatian, which described extreme aversion or enmity.
The integral association between the word “hate” and crimes specific to protected groups (specifically the phrase “hate crime” as we use it today) is relatively recent, emerging in the latter half of the 20th century.
You know how in thieves’ slang you hear the word “lift” instead of “steal,” as in “the impish pickpocket lifted a wallet from the gentleman’s pocket?”
The word “heist” is the same idea: It’s a variation on the word hoist as in to lift in the air. It originally comes from the Middle Dutch word hyssen (Dutch hijsen).
But of course hoist implies lifting something particularly large or heavy, so a heist is a much bigger and more involved theft than simply lifting wallets.
A scandal is literally a trap laid by an enemy for their opponent.
In Greek, skandalon referred to a stumbling block or a trap laid for an enemy, a sense that was first recorded in a Greek translation of the Old Testament. Its PIE root is thought to mean “to leap,” suggesting specifically a trap with a springing device.
The word “slander” is ultimately from the same source, but morphed into its current form by means of the French esclandre, meaning an inflammatory or false statement meant to, in essence, act as a trap to discredit someone by way of causing a scandal.
One of the earliest appearances of “scandal” in English is in the 13th-century Ancrene Wisse (Guide for Anchoresses) with the spelling scandle, which in context described a moral stumbling block or potential temptation for religious hermits.
The term took on its fully gossipy sense by the late 16th century. Shakespeare employed it shortly thereafter in Sonnet 112, one of a series in which he alludes to an unknown bit of scandal that damaged his reputation:
Your love and pity doth the impression fill
Which vulgar scandal stamp’d upon my brow.
This information is excerpted from Words from Hell: Unearthing the Darkest Secrets of English Etymology (Chambers 2023) by Jess Zafarris.
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The English language is where words go to be tortured and mutilated into unrecognizable shadows of their former selves. It's where Latin, Greek, and Germanic roots are shredded apart and stitched unceremoniously back together with misunderstood snippets of languages snatched from the wreckage of conquest and colonialism. It wreaks merciless havoc upon grammar and spelling. It turns clinical terms into insults and children's tales into filthy euphemisms.
With an emphasis on understanding where the foulest words in the English language came from-and the disgusting and hilarious histories behind them-this book demonstrates the true filth of our everyday words. But this book is more than just a list of vulgar words and salacious slang. It's a thoughtful analysis of why we deem words as being inappropriate as well as revealing 'good words' that have surprisingly naughty origins.
Dirty-minded word nerds and lewd linguistics lovers will derive unadulterated pleasure in leering at the origins of swear words, sexual lingo, inappropriate idioms, violent vocabulary, and terminology for bodily functions-not to mention the unexpectedly foul origins of words you thought were perfectly innocent. If it's inappropriate, stomach-churning, uncomfortable, or offensive, this book reaches into the dark recesses of history and exposes them for all to see.
True to the Chambers brand, this book combines humor, scholarly research and a beautiful design. It is a book to enjoy, collect and revisit time and time again.