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RAFFISH ROGUES, WHERE ARE YOU?

by Ruth Minshull

I was working an acrostic puzzle recently when I encountered the word “raffishness” as a synonym for vulgarity.

How long has it been, I pondered, since I’ve heard the word raffish in real life?  I had seen it in print now and then–mostly in 19th century novels.  To my surprise, however, I realized that I had never heard the word spoken.  I didn’t even know whether to pronounce it with a long “a” or a short one (short, it turns out).

All right, I thought next, is the word dying from neglect (as many do) or have people really cleaned up their acts that much?  Perhaps our ancestors lived more eventful lives than we do today.  They certainly used more colorful language, especially when they disparaged each other.

In addition to meaning rakish, disreputable, rowdy and dissipated, raffish means showy, cheap and tawdry.

Aha!  I do know these guys!  They now get on “reality” shows and become instant ersatz celebrities.

You don’t have to look much beyond the daily news to determine that people may have improved their costumes but they aren’t behaving any better.  The rogues are still out there, doing their best to do us in.  Lowlife characters continue to practice their mugging, murdering and mayhem, but many of them dress better now.

In their custom-taylored suits these miscreants operate from their limousines and boardrooms.  Knavish slick CEOs artfully lie to the shareholders and employees while pocketing millions for themselves.  These double-dealing scapegraces practice a new kind of accounting–a sleight-of-hand that cooks the books so well that they can make a defunct corporation look prosperous.  And, Wallstreet, as always, boasts its own brand of flimflam artists.  And we haven’t even mentioned the two-faced ugsome polecats who practice their chicanery in our nation’s capital.

Today we have yet another type of slubberdegullion (a 17th century description of a worthless or slovenly fellow).  Welded to a laptop, he hacks into top secret government or corporate files, steals someone’s identity or composes a semi-literate plea from Nigeria.

In older days our park benches used to be populated with wretches, ragamuffins, tatterdemalions and ragshags, mingling with a few wastrels.  But today we hear nothing but the innocuous “homeless.”  In fact, by now, I suppose even that word has morphed into something more bland.  “Residentially challenged” perhaps.

While the scoundrels are still around doing their darndest to do us in, the media no longer describe them so colorfully.  I suppose in our present litigious culture they’re afraid of getting sued.  Instead they employ carefully guarded specifics:  the “accused rapist,” the “purported swindler” and the innocuous “person of interest.”

Of course, calling someone an “alleged reprobate” would yank the teeth right out of the word.

For some reason the rich language describing the depraved was mostly masculine in its application.  I never heard of a woman being called rakish or dissolute.  On the other hand, women did suffer an abundance of their own wonderfully descriptive labels:  harpies, she-devils, vixens, ogresses, shrews, viragos, fishwives and termagants.

The implication is clearly that while the men were out carrying on their villainous deviltry, the women stayed home–nagging and scolding a lot.

I’m saddened to see all these wonderful words fall into disuse, especially since it’s obvious that people are every bit the scalawags they always were.  After all our centuries of development, the nefarious no-gooders are still up to their skullduggery.  But we carefully sidestep a vivid description of these white-collar malefactors.  Our journalists and editors are hobbled.  After being laundered by the legal department and word Nazis, our language is emerging as a pale, wimpy ghost of its former robust self.

Drat!

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© 2010 by Ruth Minshull

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