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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 373-375

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Prospects in Lexicography

Philological Ruminations of a Natural Slackard Who Became Something of a Scholard

Charles Clay Doyle, University of Georgia


A colleague told me that he had recently encountered the word slackard, which looked odd to him but not totally aberrant. I confessed that I myself might well have written slackard and then wondered why WordPerfect balked at the spelling. No dictionary records slackard for 'a person who slacks (off)'--that is, a slacker.

A handful of words were formed, in Middle English and Early Modern English, by adding -ard or -art to an adjective, verb, or noun. The resulting noun signified a person (or other creature) associated with the action or quality that the root word designates, often with the sense of 'excess' in that association, hence 'offensiveness or contemptibility'. The suffix derives from Old French -ard/-art, related to Germanic -hard/-hart 'bold, hardy'. Examples are bastard, braggart, dastard, dotard, drunkard, dullard, pollard, sluggard, wizard. Other such coinages did not survive the Middle Ages, like ballard 'bald guy', fabelard 'fabler, liar', failard 'failure', and losard 'loser'.

My colleague Jonathan Evans, the one who mentioned slackard, pointed to the analogous Dunkard and its synonym Dunker or Tunker. Those words are all Americanisms dating from the mid-eighteenth century (from German tunken 'dip, immerse, dunk'), nicknames for a member of the Church of the Brethren, an Anabaptist sect founded in the Rhineland in 1708, most of whose membership had migrated to Pennsylvania by 1730, where the words were coined. Both Dunkard and Dunker are often considered derogatory; Evans remembers being derided with the epithet Dunkard on the school bus in Indiana about 1966 (his father was a pastor of another "baptizing" denomination). Nonetheless, in 1926 an offshoot sect in Indiana officially designated itself "Dunkard Brethren."

I recall having heard, and used, the jocular construction scholard among fellow graduate students at the University of Texas during the late 1960s. At its entry for the word scholar, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED21989) records five literary uses of scholard or schollard (a1590, 1644, 1677, 1678, and 1853), all of them intended comically and all but the first labeled an "illiterate use, . . . vulgar or dial." Hidden within other OED2 entries, four additional instances (all of them likewise in comical renditions of outlandish dialects) can be discovered by an electronic search of the online version of the dictionary: in the illustrative quotations for paroxysm, 1654; covey, 1821; mark, 1881; and womanthrope, 1902. [End Page 373]

The fact that "vulgar" speakers have represented scholar as scholard, and that North Midlanders use Dunkard and Dunker as interchangeable insults, suggests the phonological closeness between -ard and the common agentive suffix -er or -ar. (Apparently, some individuals fail to hear the -d at the end of niggard, a word that may or may not belong to the category being discussed here.) Especially, however, for words whose root is transparently a verb, we might expect the confusion to work mainly in the direction of -d "loss," the more familiar and productive suffix displacing the less common, archaic one.

In some instances, more or less synonymous -ard and -er words with the same base have coexisted for centuries. Estimating from the earliest attestaions in OED2, bragger (1360) antedates braggart (1577), as lubber (1362) does lubbard (1586); but doter (1552) follows dotard (1386), as blinker (1636) does blinkard (1510). Drunkard (1530) and the obsolete drunker (1539) are about the same age, as are stinkard (1600) and stinker (1607). Lagger dates from 1523, while laggard is a "new" coinage, first attested (as a noun) by OED2 in 1808 (the adjectival use is older). By use of the computer-searchable Chadwyck-Healey LION ("Literature-on-Line") database, I can nudge back the noun's terminus ante quem a whole century; I have verified the quotations:

1789. . . . leave reflection and remorse far off, / The laggards of our journey. [Henry Brooke, The Imposter: A Tragedy 4.3]
1733. Blushing I look upon my poor Resolves, / A Laggard in the Race [William Havard, Scanderbeg...


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