Taking the Vagabond Path
Did you know that vagabond has two meanings? According to the Cambridge Dictionary it’s “a person who has no home and usually no job, and who travels from place to place” but Merriam Webster gives an additional definition “one leading an unsettled, irresponsible, or disreputable life”. I was thinking vagabonds were only disreputable in North America but my trusty Collins dictionary also gives them a negative description as a thief. Vagabond can also be used as an adjective, in case you need it.
Regardless of whether a vagabond is an innocent wanderer of winding paths, or a criminal on the move, where does the word come from?
Vagabond was originally spelled as wagabund (it was in a criminal charge in 1311) and was used in Middle English as vagabounde. Early English spelling was erratic at best, but by the early 1400s English had vagabond. Despite that early legal charge, a vagabond was originally somebody without a home. The idea of them being in some way disreputable didn’t settle into the dictionary until the 1600s.
Vagabond is one the Romans gave us. It starts by compounding two Latin words — vagari (to wander or roam, related to the roots of the word vague) and bundus (to be) to give us vagabundus (wandering about). From there vagabundus wandered into Old French vacabond (wandering or unsteady) by the 1300s and hence, following the Normans, into Anglo-French as vacabunde, and finally into English as wagabund, vagabounde, and vagabond. The spelling of vagabond truly wanders all over the place, which seems immensely appropriate to me.
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
Books about word history https://wordfoolery.wordpress.com/my-books/)
Revised for Medium but originally published at http://wordfoolery.wordpress.com on May 3, 2021.