A scalawag, the dictionaries tell us, is a rascal, a reprobate, a scamp, a scoundrel.
Now imagine that you’re researching one of your ancestors and you discover that not only was he called a “scalawag,” but he’s actually key to understanding how the epithet came about in the first place.
That was the experience of Nathaniel Sharpe, a 22-year-old genealogy buff from Bathgate, N.D., a town of about 50 people near the Canadian border. By assiduously plumbing online archives of 19th-century newspapers, he uncovered information about the origins of “scalawag” that had long eluded etymologists.
Welcome to word-sleuthing in the digital age. Today, thanks to the digitization of historical sources and easy online access, even a small-town, twentysomething amateur armed only with Internet savvy and a good nose for language can solve previously intractable mysteries about English. Think of it as the democratization of etymological research: The tools of discovery are finally within everyone’s reach.
Sharpe, who has had an interest in genealogy since he was 12, was trying to dig up information about one of his forebears, John W. Putman of Batavia, N.Y. Looking through a database of digitized newspapers from New York State, he found a mention of Putnam in the March 8, 1836, issue of Batavia’s Republican Advocate. It wasn’t flattering: Putnam appeared in a blacklist compiled by local merchants of people who had left town without settling debts.
Next to the names of the absconding debtors was a single word: “skallewagg.” “It was so weird,” Sharpe told me. “I didn’t even know, was it a form of the modern ‘scalawag,’ or did it mean something else back then?” Sharpe found a recent discussion of “scalawag” by the noted etymologist Anatoly Liberman, but was surprised to find that the Batavia mention predated the earliest known instance by more than a decade.
Just like that, Sharpe’s genealogical quest shifted to a challenge of antedating, or finding ever-earlier usages of a given word—a popular treasure hunt among verbivores. “It was completely by accident,” Sharpe said of his discovery. “It felt like the stories you hear about people out in their backyards stumbling on dinosaur bones. I was looking for something completely different and came across this other thing that I realized no one knew about.”
The first citation of “scalawag” given by the Oxford English Dictionary is from J.R. Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms, which defines it as “a favorite epithet in western New York for a mean fellow; a scape-grace.” From there, the word rose—it achieved prominence after the Civil War as a name for a white Southerner in favor of Reconstruction—and fell, lingering as an old-fashioned term for a rascally fellow or mischievous child. But little progress was made in all that time to pinpoint its origins.
Etymological conjectures have focused on a Scottish origin, perhaps from “scallag” for a farm servant or “scurryvaig” for a vagabond. The latter word may go back to the Latin phrase “scurra vagus,” meaning “a wandering fool.” But in its modern form, “scalawag” first surfaced in western New York, after the opening of the Erie Canal led to a population boom there.
In the town of Batavia, merchants had been branding debtors with the “skallewagg” label since 1834, Sharpe determined. But by looking for alternate spellings, he was able to push the history of the word back even further. The earliest he has found is from an April 11, 1832, article in the Ithaca Chronicle on election returns in Niagara County. Challenging the newly formed Anti-Masonic Party, it was reported, were candidates “under the designation of the scalliwag ticket.”
What would anti-anti-Freemasons have to do with debt-dodging customers? Sharpe pinpointed a surprising figure uniting these two strands: one of Batavia’s founding fathers, James Brisbane. Brisbane was a leading light in the Anti-Masonic Party (founded in Batavia after a man was presumed to be killed by Masons for threatening to expose their secrets). He was also, according to an 1885 newspaper report, the coiner of the word “scalawag.”
Brisbane, the account recalled, ended up having to define the word in court, after using it against a “dissipated butcher” who sued for libel. Though “scalawag” was widely understood to refer to an absconding debtor, Brisbane’s lawyer managed to convince the court that it meant “gentlemanly butcher, retired from business.”
Batavia city historian Larry Barnes told me via e-mail that Brisbane was known as an eccentric tycoon who “spoke his mind rather directly.” He was also of Scottish descent, which fits nicely with the etymological speculation over “scalawag.” The evidence Sharpe gathered implies that Brisbane might have refashioned a word from his Scottish heritage and applied it to his foes, be they political or commercial.
Sharpe said his “scalawag” hunt was a “solitary exploration” until he joined the American Dialect Society mailing list, a haven for those in the antedating game (including me). When he shared his findings, the old hands were suitably impressed. Jonathan Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, confirmed that the examples predated any that he had come across. Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, deemed it “outstanding research.” It is ample proof that when it comes to tracking down word origins, the distinction between amateurs and professionals matters less these days than ingenuity—and luck—in working the historical databases. And Sharpe can thank his scalawag of an ancestor for leading him down the path to lexical enlightenment.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and
Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.