With the far right wing-tip of the Republican Party having gone all roguey, and parts of the voting republic following after in good Tea Party fashion, it struck me as an opportune moment to check on the word, which turns out to have a checkered past, to say the least. But then, who’s perfect?
The earliest use of the word comes from the middle sixteenth century, according to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which may for the purposes of argument be considered definitive, so to speak. It seems to have had something to do with the French word roger (hard G), which meant “to beg.” In any case, by 1551 it had come to mean “One belonging to a class of idle vagrants or vagabonds.” By 1578 it referred to “A dishonest, unprincipled person.” But as Shakespeare might have said, what’s in an etymology?
Fittingly, perhaps, by 1859 it also referred to “An elephant living apart, or driven away, from the herd, and of a savage and destructive disposition.” (That was about 5 years after the Republican Party was organized and Mr. Lincoln of Illinois was engaged in a series of debates with Stephen Douglas. The rampaging elephant was first used as a party symbol around 1874.)
If you are still with me, boys and girls, in modern parlance, according to handy on-line dictionaries, the noun has come to signify a vagrant or tramp, a dishonest or worthless person, AKA scoundrel; a horse inclined to shirk or misbehave, and an individual exhibiting a chance and usually inferior biological variation. I kid you not. (See http://www.merriam-webster.com/netdict/rogue. I am not making this up. A similar entry can be found at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rogue. My students regard these sources as theologically definitive, so I assume we are still on firm ground.)
As used, “rogue” enjoys several nuances, including the notion of a charming miscreant as opposed to its more sinister and real meaning. In 2007 it was the title of an Australian movie about a big crocodile threatening to eat a party of innocent campers. But even in this day of cinematic revisionism, one should not forget the great old 1950 movie about Robin Hood’s son (John Derek in a dashingly swashbuckling role) called Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Thieves and bandits, you know. Russell Crowe might deck you if you said that to his face, however.
Rogue is also a female character in a Marvel comic book series, collectively a class of damage-dealers in the World of Warfare, and a gas-guzzling Nissan SUV. Sometimes the term is used to refer to states like Israel and Iran that flaunt international law and human decency in regard to civil rights violations, oppression of minority groups, and general bellicosity.
So before we all get on the roguey bandwagon, perhaps a moment’s reflection would be in order. Or have I got it all wrong?