Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
The movies have me in a venge-ful mood these days. Among the surfeit of superhero movies this summer there was Captain America: The First Avenger. This movie, along with Thor and last summer's Iron Man 2, is a prelude to next summer's The Avengers, showcasing the Marvel superhero team that features these characters.
Vengeance is turning up in movie titles, too. It's in the title of another Marvel comic-turned-movie coming out next summer: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It was also in last summer's Furry Vengeance, in which talking animals wage slapstick-comedy war on an eco-unfriendly developer. There's vengeance on television, too, with Spartacus: Vengeance on Starz. And let's not forget revenge. This summer, we've had Transformers III: Revenge of the Fallen, and last summer there was Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. An upcoming fall TV series is titled Revenge.
With so many vengeance-heavy titles coming at us, a pattern emerges: Avenging and vengeance are for good guys, while revenge is for the bad guys. It's true for movies in earlier years, too. The Toxic Avenger from the 1984 movie of the same name was the hero; so were the Avengers of the 1960s television spy drama (and 1998 movie). The third installment in the movie franchise starring Bruce Willis as the ultimate good cop skipped the III designation and instead called itself Die Hard with a Vengeance.
As for revenge, just look at Star Wars. Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, pairs up revenge with the evil embracers of the Dark Side of the Force. By contrast, Episode VI had the title Revenge of the Jedi right up until just before its theatrical release, but ultimately it was decided that revenge just didn't suit the peaceful Jedi so well, and Revengebecame Return. (I'm wondering now if The Empire Strikes Back wasn't called The Empire's Revenge because George Lucas was expecting to use revenge in Episode VI.) And come to think of it, there's a classic Bill Cosby sketch in which he recounts his months-long plot as a child to punish Junior Barnes for hitting him in the face with a slushball. He is so duplicitous as to make friends with Junior Barnes in order for his eventual payback to have maximum effect. The title isn't "Vengeance"; it's "Revenge." Revenge!
There are exceptions: In the Revenge of the Nerds movies, the nerds were the protagonists, and from what I can learn of the TV series Revenge, it's the protagonist who's seeking revenge. In 1978's Revenge of the Pink Panther, there's no pink panther at all, much less one bent on revenge. But laying the exceptions aside, how did these similar words come to be associated with good guys or bad guys?
Avenge, revenge, and vengeance (along with vengeful and the semi-archaic revengeful), all come from the Latin verb vindicare, the source of modern English vindicate (what good guys do) and vindictive (what bad guys are). The original meaning was to claim as one's own, and figuratively, to protect, and still more figuratively, to avenge. In Old French, it developed into venger, which was borrowed into English as the verb venge in the early 1300s. (In this case , the -er is not an agentive suffix, but an infinitive marker.) Alongside venger, Old French also had the verb avenger, with the prefix a- meaning "to, toward." Despite the prefix, avenger meant pretty much the same thing as venger, and was borrowed into English as avenge in the later 1300s. A couple of centuries later, English also borrowed the Middle French verb revenger. In this word, the prefix re- has its sense of returned action rather than repeated action. Of the three verbs, only avenge has survived to the present day as a commonly used verb. Venge is altogether archaic, last cited in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1915, and revenge survives mainly as a noun.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, there is widespread agreement among usage manuals that avenge has connotations of just and righteous retribution, often one another's behalf, while revenge has an idea of possibly unjust retaliation, undertaken on one's own behalf. However, MWDEU adds, "Our evidence shows ... that the distinction is only sometimes observed," and they provide examples such as, "...bands of Maryland men set out to revenge the deaths of their comrades," and "its outraged victim finally avenged himself." Even so, the distinction seems to be live enough to have a noticeable effect on film and television titles.
A distinction that MWDEU and Random House Unabridged Dictionary gloss over is that in addition to the difference in connotations between avenge and revenge, there's a difference in syntax. That is, avenge is a verb, while revenge is almost always used as a noun. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, every one of the 700 examples of avenge is a verb, while less than half of 1% of the total attestations of revenge are verbs (26 out of 4704). So if you're one of the many speakers for whom revenge is only a noun, what do you do when you want a verb that means to exact one's own (possibly unjust) punishment? Well, you can say "exact one's own (possibly unjust) punishment," or "get even," or (if you're British) "get one's own back," or use revenge in combination with a verb like get or take. Or you can ignore the connotations about justice or malice, ignore the mismatch in prefixes, and just use avenge as a verb-equivalent of revenge, in kind of the same way as we treat remember as a verb-equivalent of memory. That might well be the source of some of the attestations of avenge used in a situation that would otherwise favor revenge.
Furthermore, the fact that avenge is only a verb may also explain why the noun vengeance tends to go with the good guys in movie titles the same way avenge does. If you're looking for a noun form of avenge to name something the heroes are doing, the negative connotations of revenge make it a bad choice. The closest-related other noun form is vengeance, so there you are. Sure, it's a little weird that the noun form is vengeance instead of *avengeance, but that's just one of those things about English — like memory and remember again.
To finish off, I now turn to all those movies and TV shows with titles that refer to patience and turning the other cheek. Let me think for a minute...