You pack-saddle child!

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).

Image by Matthew Goodwin via Wikimedia Commons. The Wikipedia caption notes the horse is carrying something called, fittingly enough, a “swag,” an Australian and New Zealand term for a “portable sleeping bag.”

The origin of bastard isn’t quite so tidy, however. Some, like Ernest Klein (Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1971suggest 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 cowarddrunkard, 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?

8 thoughts on “You pack-saddle child!

  1. Debunker December 16, 2014 / 6:32 pm

    Very interesting! In Irish, we often use bastard as a loan-word, especially in reference to Gregory Campbell… According to de Bhaldraithe’s English-Irish Dictionary, bastard madra is the Irish for mongrel, though I don’t think many people would use that now, especially not in formal or official contexts, though the other word, bodmhadra, is derived from the Irish word for penis, so it’s not a lot better! There are lots of idiomatic expressions for illegitimacy in Irish, such as páiste gréine (child of the sun), mac tabhartha (a given son), páiste toir (child of a bush), páiste raithní (child of bracken).


  2. Nipo December 17, 2014 / 4:11 pm

    In Finnish there’s “lehtolapsi” (lehto/lapsi, where lehto = grove and lapsi = child). The word is not really in use anymore anywhere, but possibly in genealogy or history, or when wanting to gossip about an old relative in a “nice” way.

    Then there’s “äpärä” (originally meant hay that grows on a field after it’s been reaped, so “extra profit” in a way), which possibly first meant a child that was born from a marriage but after the father’s death, later evolved to mean just any child whose parents were not married (until they got married, if they did), and now it’s a rather rarely used swear word.


  3. Keith December 17, 2014 / 6:08 pm

    I’m sure I’ve heard the term “balle perdue” in French. Usually, this would mean a “stray bullet” that hits an “innocent by-stander”, but you can imagine that it’s the shot that gets a chap into hot water when the girl hit by the stray bullet falls.


  4. Vilinthril December 17, 2014 / 8:30 pm

    In Austrian German, the colloquial (and nowadays probably archaic) term is “Bankert”, referring to the (kitchen) bank whereupon the maid whence the bastard was born used to get it from the bastard-sowing man-of-the-house.

    The more formal term (also in Germany’s German) is “Kegel”, as in (bowling) pin or cone – the etymology for this is unknown AFAIK (could be a phallic reference, could be a derogatory term for “child” similar to “Bengel”, which refers to the stick unruly children were to be beaten with).

    (For references, see (“Kegel²”) and, assuming you read German.)


  5. John Kelly December 18, 2014 / 2:40 am

    Páiste greine, äpärä, balle perdu, Bankert–these are fantastic and confirm that sexual impulsivity is linguistically inclusive, if you will.


  6. John Cowan December 25, 2014 / 3:25 am

    You wrote “born in a born” above…. There’s a now-recessive accent variation in which instead of merging NORTH and FORCE, merges NORTH and START, keeping FORCE separate. So born in a barn really does have the same vowel in each word.


  7. John Cowan December 25, 2014 / 3:26 am

    Oops, I left out a few words: a recessive accent of the American South.


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