Sunday, September 26, 2010


Greg brought up the word ragamuffin. Today, we take it as the name for a little boy who is shabby in appearance, usually in need of a shower, and spirited almost beyond endurance.

The raga- segment meant shaggy, and it was originally applied to a devil, traditionally shaggy or ragged in appearance. The –muffin element is disputed, although there is universal agreement that it does not refer to the pastry of the same spelling. Some commentators think that it came from fynn, meaning a fiend.

On page 73 of his Word Origins and How We Know Them, Anatoly Liberman cites E. W. Provost, the author of a dialectical dictionary. He notes that in the Cumberland dialect, Auld Muffy was a reference to the Devil. It is related to the French maufé (hideous and deformed), also used in the Middle Ages as a name for the Devil. That seems to be a definitive explanation.

The word ragamuffin achieved wide currency after appearing in William Langland’s Piers Plowman. In that work, Ragamoffyn was the name of a specific devil. So, starting as a deformed demon and ending as a snot-nosed little kid, the word has had quite a journey.

SIDEBAR: RagaMuffin

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