Think of the word villain and you may imagine criminals, pickpockets or fraudsters. But the association of the word with crime is relatively new. In fact the word originally referred to a particular class of people on the lower levels of feudal society.


The word derives from the Latin villanus, meaning ‘one attached to a villa or farmhouse’. Villanus moved into the English language in two forms: villain defined by the OED as ‘a low-born, base-minded rustic’ (from c.1303), and villein ‘one of the class of serfs in the feudal system’. Over a few hundred years the word comes to signify illegal activities. This is a classic case of social and political forces shifting the meaning of a word. It is very common indeed for the rich and powerful to influence the language in this way, although it must not be forgotten that subcultures and subversives throughout history have also played an essential part in influencing language change, as any dictionary of slang will reveal.