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scalawag

Printable Version Pronunciation: skæ-lê-wæg Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: (Dialectal slang) Someone up to no good, anyone from a simple mischievous rascal to a scoundrel; however, the humor associated with this word generally undermines its seriousness.

Notes: Today's Good Word is another one of those silly American nonsense words that found a place for itself in the general vocabulary. It was once used in a serious tone by Southerners in referring to their white brethren who supported the federal government during the Reconstruction Period. It is still used more widely in the south than in the north, even though it apparently originated in the north (see Word History). It is generally listed as a lexical orphan with no derivatives, but since scalawags are often up to skullduggery, wouldn't that also qualify as scalawaggery?

In Play: Scalawag is used far more often in the southern US states today than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. It usually refers to someone up to mischief: "Who was the scalawag who dropped the water balloon on me as I came in?" I like the abstract noun I just made up in the Notes: "If your son was more involved in his studies and less in scalawaggery, Mrs. Wipplesnatch, his grades would climb rapidly."

Word History: John Barlett claimed in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848) that this word originated in New York, possibly as an alteration of Scottish scallag "farm servant, hayseed" under the influence of wag "jokester". However, we have a record of its referring to a runt, a small, worthless animal, and spelled scallaway. This suggests it might have started out as a variant of Scalloway, one of the Shetland Islands, known for its Shetland ponies. Wag would have had the same influence on this word. The new version would have then migrated south in the 1860s with the 'carpet-baggers', northerners who went south for the economic opportunities afforded by the Reconstruction. These Yankees were so despised by southerners that the word they imported stuck to them, then spread to others. (Sara Goldman certainly was no scalawag when she recommended today's Good Word, a slip of pure American fun.)

Dr. Goodword, alphaDictionary.com

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