When it comes to bastards, it’s about location, location, location. Prepositionally speaking, a bastard is a child conceived out of wedlock, of course. But etymologically, a bastard is conceived,well, let’s just say it’s properly old, dirty, and horny–just like a good bastard should be.
The Oxford English Dictionary attests bastard as early as 1297 in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester: Of þulke blode Wyllam bastard com, or Of that very blood William (the) bastard comes (p. 295). The word comes directly from the Old French bastard, which may not have been the case if it weren’t for that selfsame Wyllam: William the Bastard. His Norman Conquest, as it came to be called, in 1066 not only christened him William the Conqueror but also throned the French language in England for the ensuing centuries–and forever changing the English language as a result. As this epithetic bastard may suggest, bastard was not always such a disreputable word; we’d have to wade into inheritance law and the Church for that shift.
The French bastard joins bast, “a pack-saddle,” and the suffix –ard. This bast appears in the colorful phrase, fils de bast, not “son of a bitch” but “son of a pack-saddle.” The OED notes that pack-saddles were “used as a bed by muleteers in the inns.” (I guess that’s why all the inns in Bethlehem had their “Do Not Disturb” signs up, no?) The sense here, as I’m sure you can gather, is that such a child was not conceived in the legitimacy of the marriage bed.
According to this etymology, the French bast is from the Late Latin bastum, a “pack-saddle,” which may be from a verb meaning “to carry” (Baumgartner and Ménard, 1996, Dictionnaire Étymologique).
The origin of bastard isn’t quite so tidy, however. Some, like Ernest Klein (Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1971) suggest that this bast is from a Germanic root, *bansti, for “barn.” I suppose we echo the lowly sense of this derivation when we remark, What were you, born in a born? Not that the barn is much of an upgrade from a pack-saddle, but anything is better than your father’s story about the back of his 1970 Dodge Charger before the Led Zeppelin tour.
This -ard isn’t so nice, either. A so-called pejorative suffix, it’s also featured in words like coward, drunkard, and sluggard, though not so contemptibly in words like standard and mallard. Family names like Reynard (cf. Reinhardt) ultimately point us to Germanic origins in a root that also yields the English hard.
In a variant form, –art, this -ard also appears other bastard synonyms, as Walter Skeat offers (An Etymological Dictionary of the English English, 2005): the French coitrart, a “son of a quilt,” or coite, and the Germanic bankart, “son of a bench,” or bank. The English bantling is similarly derived from this latter example. Ernest Weekley (An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 1967) directs us to the Low German mantelkind, “mantle child,” and the Old Norse hrīsungr, with hrīs meaning “brushwood.” At least some terms have the courtesy to use a blanket.
What other bastard terms do you know of? Any hidden objects tucked away in a term for bastard in another language you speak?