One of the most hotly anticipated films of the holiday movie season has to be the new Star Wars movie Rogue One, which is opens today, December 16. The meaning of rogue has evolved over the years, from its original meaning of one who is deceitful, lowly and worthless to the connotations of today, when the word is usually associated with a charming, almost admirable, scoundrel.

The few details that have leaked out about the new Star Wars indicate that the film follows the rebels trying to get their hands on the plans for the evil Death Star, so we can assume that even long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, they have a very modern conception of the word rogue, and the audience is supposed to be rooting for these particular rascally rogues. The Star Wars universe is densely populated with these kinds of rogues, people like Lando Calrissian and, most famously, Han Solo, who is gruff and plays by his own rules but is still on the side of the good guys. In what follows, I trace rogue through some other instances where it had its cultural moment.

In one of the most famous lines in one of his most famous plays, Shakespeare has Hamlet exclaim:

O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! 
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!

Hamlet Act II Scene 2 (lines 550-557)

When Hamlet begins the soliloquy this way, he is angry with himself and utilizing the first definition of rogue cited above — he feels worthless when comparing himself to the Player King, who has just wept while delivering a piece of verse. The soliloquy concerns, among other things, how amazed Hamlet is that he has just witnessed this actor cry real tears over a fictional scenario, when Hamlet cannot bring bring himself to act to avenge the very real death of his father. One of the interesting things about Hamlet's use of the word rogue in this context is that the Player King who delivered the speech may technically be the deceitful rogue — he is after all telling tales and lying when he delivers his lines — but it is Hamlet who feels like the true rogue, whose life is cheap if he cannot summon the courage to act.

Jumping ahead some 400 years, when former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin ran for Vice-president in 2008 on the Republican ticket, she cultivated an image as an outsider, and even called her book Going Rogue: An American Life. This use of rogue highlights another of its definitions that has been given a positive spin in recent years. A rogue can also refer to an individual animal that normally lives with others of its kind in a herd, but has been driven away or lives apart from others. The phrase "going rogue" has the additional meaning of "no longer following orders."

Sarah Palin wore these senses of the word rogue as a badge of honor and continues to cultivate this image to the present day. The idea that Governor Palin is not a typical politician, never mind a typical Republican, that she "lives apart" from the establishment, any establishment, is one of the keys to her appeal. In nature, a rogue animal is often associated with its savage or destructive tendencies, and while not explicitly preaching destruction of institutions, Palin has embraced the image of the strength (and/or violence, depending on your point of view) that this kind of overhaul would take — she is an avid hunter, and during her tenure as governor she actively promoted the hunting of wolves and bears utilizing helicopters.

In our literature and our pop culture, modern rogues address the fact that plain, normal good guys can be a little boring. Even if they are the main focus, heroes who do nothing but follow the rules are less than captivating and often need a sidekick who is not as concerned with the letter of the law. Rogues add life and spice to the mix by being unpredictable and not conforming to the ideal of the standard hero, even if they are ultimately on the side of the righteous and the true.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 16th 2016, 4:20 PM
Comment by: Mister E. (NH)
Your article could not be more timely - just today Obama used the term in reference to Putin's regime in his press conference.
Sunday December 18th 2016, 10:43 AM
Comment by: AdityaisSagrka (Plainsboro, NJ)Top 10 Speller
I'm a big star wars fan and i can't wait for rogue one!
Thursday December 29th 2016, 2:55 PM
Comment by: AdityaisSagrka (Plainsboro, NJ)Top 10 Speller
I already watched rogue one
lemme spoil it

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