Some background here, ye corky-armed poltroons: I be playin’ a game with some academic friends that involves pirate ships and sailing. It’s great fun: one can design a ship, navy or pirate, and learn to tack, raise and lower sails, fire cannon with several types of shot, and (of course) be sunk down to Davy Jones’ locker.
Sea-faring has a rich vocabulary, some of which in time entered academic parlance and common use (“against the wind” comes to mind).
Likewise, nicknames with adjectives yield some excellent (cannon) fodder for this blog.
Recently several of us, between battles on the virtual sea, devised alliterative pirate names.
“Pestilential Pete” proved a fine one. “Scurvy” gets overused and can be easily solved by citrus on a ship (hence, the clever English who figured this out got called Limeys).
But what about “Scrofulous Sam”? That was my pick. It’s not because our pirate suffers from the lymphatic disease called Scrofula, though that is the origin of our word this week, as the OED shows us. Nay, Matey, belay that thought!
Sam would more likely (he is a pirate) to suffer from a moral depravity. As the OED entry notes, Sam would be “morally corrupt.” Never confuse the word with “scruffy,” of similar antiquity but denoting physical shabbiness.
While first usage of this week’s term dates back to the 17th Century, it was only in the Victorian era that we see a first-use metaphorically, in relation to morals. An 1889 example shows how the term appears in print, and readers today are likely to encounter it in Victorian literature like this:
“Holywell-street was re-named ‘Booksellers’-row’ because of its scrofulous reputation.”
A nasty word, but formal-sounding at this distance in time, as is “pestilential” or even “barbarous.” Drawing-room dialogue in Downton Abbey, the characters never fearing the eruption of pirates, plague-victims, or Visigoths during tea hour.
At least until the next sequel. Avast!
Be thou lubber or old salt, a tar or a pantaloon, scrofulous or saintly, this blog be keepin’ a weather-eye out for new words and metaphors! Sam will take your messages in a bottle at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu
Flag image courtesy of Wikipedia.