Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A "Scalawag" in the Family Tree

Scalawag, "a deceitful and unreliable scoundrel," is a fun word to say. It sounds like something a pirate on the high seas might call a rival. In fact, it originated in western New York in the 1830s, and a young genealogy buff recently turned up some fascinating early evidence on the word when he was investigating an ancestor.

My latest column for the Boston Globe tells how Nathaniel Sharpe, a 22-year-old amateur genealogist from a small town in North Dakota near the border with Canada, discovered some keys to the origins of scalawag when he found that one of his ancestors was described with that label. Actually, he was called a skallewagg (one of many variant spellings floating around), in an 1836 newspaper from Batavia, New York that printed a list of people who had skipped town before settling their debts with local merchants.

Sharpe found the article on FultonHistory.com, a rather quirky website that archives digitized newspapers from New York State. He kept looking in the Batavia papers for other listings of debtors, and managed to take skallewagg back to the Sep. 16, 1834 issue of the Batavia Republican Advocate, following the name of Abial Hawkins, a butcher. Further digging on another database turned up scalliwag in a political context in 1832, referring to opponents of the region's Anti-Masonic Party.

"Scalliwag" in the April 11, 1832 Ithaca Chronicle.

Abial Hawkins, the first "skallewagg" in 1834.

Sharpe's ancestor, John W. Putman, a "skallewagg" in 1836.

All of this was news to the language researchers who congregate on the American Dialect Society mailing list, where Sharpe first shared his findings. He was eager to get in touch with some experts after reading a piece about scalawag by the University of Minnesota etymologist Anatoly Liberman on the Oxford University Press blog that identified the earliest known use of the word as appearing in 1848. Sharpe wanted to know if he had found genuine antedatings of the term.

Last December, around the time that Sharpe was doing his research, the New York Times published an article on the history of the mysterious expression "the whole nine yards," reporting on new research that found an earlier variant, "the whole six yards," dating back to 1912. I was quoted in the piece as calling the expression "a kind of Holy Grail" for the word researchers of the American Dialect Society (for which I serve as chair of the New Words Committee). Sharpe read this article, which mentioned the ADS mailing list as a venue for sharing this type of scholarship, and sought out the list.

Though the ADS-ers might have been initially skeptical, Sharpe's carefully collected scalawag citations quickly dispelled any doubts that he had made important discoveries about the origins of the word. (Liberman's post discusses the various theories about the word's etymology, likely from a Scottish root but first appearing as an American word.)

Sharpe went further by finding a remembrance of James Brisbane, an eccentric businessman who helped to found the town of Batavia, crediting Brisbane with coining scalawag. A butcher — possibly Abial Hawkins, the first skallewagg identified in the Batavia paper — had sued Brisbane for libel, according to the account, since he didn't appreciate being called by that epithet. And Brisbane was also active in the Anti-Masonic Party, so the 1832 example might have his fingerprints on it, too.

The world of word origins is full of unsupported speculations and pipe dreams. "The whole nine yards" is a case in point — as my columns here have shown, armchair etymologists can be utterly convinced that they know the true source of an expression without a shred of evidence. So it's a great relief when new light is shed on a term of uncertain provenance, and the research stands up to scrutiny. Sharpe's genealogical excursion took him to unexpected places, and those of us who study the origins of words and phrases are quite glad that he found a scalawag in his family tree.

(As for scalawag sounding like pirate talk, Sharpe told me he "laughed out loud" when he was watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie recently and heard Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow say the word. There's no way 18th-century pirates could have used scalawag, as the word didn't circulate much outside of upstate New York until after the Civil War, when it came to be applied to Southern whites who favored Reconstruction.)

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.