I’ve often marvelled at the journey a word takes from its birth to its present usage, and one fine example is termagant, an answer I’ve clued before in a recent MegaMix crossword.
The word termagant means a violent, overbearing person, usually a woman. Synonyms we might use as clues are shrew, virago, harridan, formidable woman, battleaxe or indomitable nag.
When I once asked my niece what she thought a termagant was, she guessed “An insect repellent?” I see what she means, sounds like a terminator for ants.
It started off as a fictitious Muslim god, mentioned by writers in medieval Europe, such as the author of Chanson de Roland in the 11th C and Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.
The name Termagant gradually became a stock character in a number of medieval plays, where Termagant would appear onstage depicted as a tall man in a turban wearing a long, Eastern-style gown. As a stage villain, he would rant at the lesser villains, his servants and worshippers.
As a result of this theatrical tradition, by Shakespeare’s day the term had come to refer to a bullying person. In Henry IV, Falstaff makes a reference to “that hot termagant Scot”. In Hamlet, the hero says of ham actors that “I would have such a fellow whipped for o’er-doing Termagant, it out-Herods Herod”. Herod, like Termagant, was also a character from medieval drama who was famous for ranting.
Because of the long gowns, and the fact that female roles were always played by men in Shakespearean days, it was mistakenly thought that the character resembled a mannish woman, and came to represent that scolding nag that many a play has – often a landlady or a hospital matron.
The name eventually became a word, meaning a quarrelsome, scolding woman although it can mean a man, who rants in bad humour.
Typical examples nowadays of a nagging, bad-tempered woman would be Rumpole’s wife Hilda, who he secretly refers to as ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ or Hyacinth Bucket from the TV comedy Keeping Up Appearances.