Transcript for Erin McKean on the definition of scoundrel

Jim Fleming: But we still needed a working definition of the word "scoundrel", and for that we headed to lexicographer, Erin McKean.  She's the founder and CEO of the online dictionary, Wordnik. She's also the principle editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Steve Paulson sat down with her.

Steve Paulson: We asked you a few days ago, to think about the word "scoundrel". Have you figured out what it means?

Erin McKean: Well, what it means is pretty straight-forward, the word "scoundrel".  Samuel Johnson said it was a "mean rascal, a low, petty villain".

Paulson: Okay...uh.....

McKean: I don't think you can top that.  I think you know since Samuel Johnson said it, it hasn't really changed that much.  The word "scoundrel", I think, has lately taken on a more.....approving tone?

Paulson: Right.

McKean: Like, you might say, "Oh, he's such a scoundrel," but you don't mean he's such a low, petty villain.  You mean he's kind of a "bad boy".

Paulson: Yeah. What I found what was interesting is, when you look at the synonyms that are listed in the Webster's Dictionary, it really covers the gamut. I just want to read some of these.  Baddie, beast, brute, devil, evildoer, fiend, heavy, hound, knave, meanie, miscreant, monster, Nazi, no-good, rapscallion, rascal, reprobate, rogue, savage, scalawag, scamp, scapegrace, villain, varlet, wretch.  So some of those are pretty nasty words, and some of them aren’t so bad.

McKean: I think we ‘ve never run out of ways to call people less than “good”, and we don’t ever really get rid of the need to call people names, either. There’s an enormous number of synonyms for scoundrel and rapscallion and scalawag, and so on.  And the Oxford Historical Thesaurus, just going back hundreds of years.

Paulson: You suggested that the definition has changed over the centuries, since Samuel Johnson’s time, and maybe it’s become a little more favorable.  I mean there’s sort of the playful element there, the Han elements. How do you explain that?

McKean: I think it’s through a linguistic process that’s sometimes called amelioration. So, bad words often get slightly better often through metaphorical extension. So, let’s say you’re given, perhaps, a hyperbole, and instead of calling somebody unpleasant or unkind, or immoral or a cheat, you’re like, “I’m gonna reach for the word “scoundrel” so that people know the depth of my feeling, but I’m not necessarily saying he’s heading for the gallows. 

Paulson: So I have to ask, would there be any circumstances where you would like to be called a scoundrel?

McKean: Hmmm, I think it would be enormously fun to be say, in my eighties or early nineties, and raising a great deal of heck.  Well, I’d like to be the kind of little old lady who raises heck. You know, mischievous, but not necessarily criminal. 

Paulson: Uh-huh.

(Paulson and McKean laugh)

Paulson: I was wondering if there is, you know, are “scoundrels among lexicographers, if that would be a badge of honor in some way?

McKean: Oh!  That’s an interesting question. I wonder what being a scoundrel-ish lexicographer would entail. Maybe they can (unintelligible) mutations to alphabetical order, to get people lost?

Paulson: Oh, that’s good! I like that!

McKean: If we all just declared that N and O were just going to switch places in the alphabet,  and we’d all pretend not to understand when people say, “I used to think it was L, M, N, O, P, “ and we’d say like, “No, no, you’re crazy.  It’s always been L, M, O, N, P.


Fleming: Lexicographer Erin McKean is the founder and CEO of the online dictionary Wordnik, She was also the principle editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary. Steve Paulson spoke with her.

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