• termagant •Pronunciation: têr-mê-gênt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, Adjective
Meaning: 1. [Noun] An ill-tempered, quarrelsome woman, a virago. 2. [Adjective] Ill-tempered, quarrelsome.
Notes: This word was once more popular than it is today, as demonstrated by its large and happy family. The quality of a termagant is termagancy and, while you don't have to add an ending to use this word as an adjective, you may if you want to: termagantish. Of course, you may add an -ly to either adjective and get an adverb for your trouble.
In Play: The wife of one of the most famous hen-pecked husbands of American literature, Rip Van Winkle, was a termagant. As Irving put it, "From even this stronghold the unlucky Rip was at length routed by his termagant wife, who would suddenly break in upon the tranquility of the assemblage, and call the members all to nought."
Word History: This odd word comes from Middle English Termagaunt, the name of an imaginary Muslim deity portrayed as a violent and overbearing character in medieval literature. Ariosto makes Ferrau "blaspheme his Mahound [Mohammed] and Termagant" in Orlando Furioso and in the Chanson de Roland, Muslims are described as worshipping a trinity, Mahom, Tervagan and Apollin (Apollo). The author of Junnus claims that Termagant was a Saxon idol whose name derives the word from tyr magan "very mighty". It might also have come from Persian tir-magian "lord Magian". However, there is no smoking gun among all the speculation, leaving us without a clear indication of its source. (Our thanks today to Larry Brady, a Grand Panjandrum at the Alpha Agora, for suggesting a word that has stumped the etymologists for centuries.)