Podcast ribald

Printable Version
Pronunciation: rai-bahld or rib-êld Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: Bawdy, risqu, coarsely funny, borderline obscene.

Notes: Today's rather tawdry word started its life in the 13th century as a noun referring to the lowest servants in the royal court. Its meaning then expanded to include any sort of varlet, scoundrel, knave, or rascal. For this reason, additional adjectives are out there: ribaldous, ribaldish, ribaldly, all of which are now archaic. The noun ribaldry, however, is still alive and kicking and, if you need a fresh synonym for varlet, knave, and rascal, you may still use ribald as a noun in that service.

In Play: Ribald humor is older than the word itself. Even before Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel we find it in some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's Decameron, and to some degree in Aristophanes' Lysistrata. However, the term equally applies to lesser masters: "Chester Drawer's ribald humor leaves proper ladies squirming in their seats."

Word History: English borrowed the word ribaud "ribald person" from Old French, where it came from the verb riber "to be wanton". Old French had previously borrowed this root from Old High German riban "to rub, to behave wantonly." (You decide how the first meaning led to the second.) Riban, in its turn, comes from an earlier Germanic root, wrib- "to turn, twist", which went into the making of English wring and wreath, objects related to turning or twisting. The part of the body that probably does the most twisting and turning is the wrist. Well, that word, too, came from the same source. (We will not utter a ribald word in thanking Katy Brezger for turning to us with today's shady little Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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