Last year at this time, I suggested we should all go looking for new language oddities, instead of boring ourselves silly with the same old usage arguments. Some of you must have agreed: the less/fewer debate dropped off the complaint charts in 2006, and only one e-mail all year mentioned "fingernails on a blackboard."
Following my own advice, I looked for surprises, not the standard stylebook violations. Sometimes the words that stopped me -- interlope, for instance, and "he hemmed" without its usual hawed -- were perfectly orthodox, if uncommon. The word "mission-creeped," in a radio report, reminded me that creeped -- with help, perhaps, from "it creeped me out" -- is competing strongly with crept in the past-tense department.
And just last week, a newspaper story on fishmongers who "no longer mong" carp sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary, where I learned that monging, though it sounds like a joke, was a verb long before we switched to mongering iron and rumors and wars.
But my favorite vocabulary surprise sailed in with Captain Jack Sparrow.
"Arrr, keelhaul the blaggards!" wrote Ty Burr in the Globe last summer, pronouncing sentence on the malefactors who brought us the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. Keelhaul the copy editors, I thought; surely they know the word is spelled "blackguard"?
Obviously -- because it's derived from the name of those black-uniformed toughs who, um...well, never mind. We don't know what the black guard was. There are a few references, in the 16th and 17th century, to "the devil's black guard" and the like; it's "a guard of attendants, black in person, dress, or character," says the OED. But hard evidence of any official, non-satanic black guard is nonexistent.
The first mention of blackguards, in fact, describes not fighters but dishwashers. A 1535 quote calls the king's scullions a black guard -- perhaps because of the iron pots they scrubbed, suggests Michael Quinion at his World Wide Words website. Later, the word is applied to other lowly groups -- vagabonds, servants, camp followers -- before it develops, in the 18th century, into our piratical blackguard, a scoundrel, villain, or "worthless low criminal."
But blackguard is the spelling, whatever the word's origins; blaggard is not yet a respectable alternative (check your dictionary). And yet, it's not just a mistake, either. Think of blaggard as blackguard's shiftless younger brother, long in exile and looking to rejoin the family.
Blaggard, as Google's Book Search reveals, has been knocking about in literary circles since at least the 1830s. Though it's the normal pronunciation of blackguard, it's often used -- like wimmin and sez and fer -- to suggest nonstandard dialect: "a little blaggard boy of ould Mulcahy's."
By the 1930s, the word was widespread enough that young Mickey Mouse was sent on some scary cartoon adventures in Blaggard Castle. But it's only since 1990 or so that a steady trickle of blaggards has begun to infiltrate newspaper usage.
Is it an Irish invasion? That's part of the story. Frank McCourt sprinkled his best-selling "Angela's Ashes" with blaguards, and the Houston-based, Dubliner-led band called the Blaggards is spreading Celtic rock throughout the land. In Manhattan, there's a mini-chain of Irish pubs named Blaggard's (which, commendably and astonishingly, has actual information about the history of blackguard on its website).
But there are other suspects in the case. British slang already has two versions of a similar word, blagger; the older one (origin unknown) means "robber"; the newer one (perhaps from the French blague, "lie, joke") means "a bluffer, a scrounger, a cadger" -- someone who talks his way into a backstage party, or impersonates you to get hold of your phone records.
It wouldn't be surprising if blaggers and blaggards, both dodgy characters, found their identities blending. The online Urban Dictionary, that bottomless well of etymological fantasy, already has one entry linking blaggard to black-hearted. Another post claims a blaggard is a shirker who talks his way out of work; yet another says it's the same as the bank-robbing blagger. (Any minute now, I expect someone to "explain" blaggard as a portmanteau of braggart and laggard.)
For all its new currency, blaggard still lags blackguard; the traditional spelling trounces the slangy one, in print and on the Web, by roughly 10 to 1. If the word catches on, the blackguard spelling could come back with it. Or we might keep the casual blaggard for pirates and pubs, reserving blackguard for historical knaves. By the time the reviewers take on "Pirates of the Caribbean 15: The Curse of English Orthography," maybe we'll have it all sorted out.