Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Word of the Week: Rake

The Tavern Scene from A Rake's Progress
by William Hogarth.
Fall is tumbling down upon us and all around us (if you live someplace where the leaves turn and fall that is). Here's a word synonymous with yard work and debauchery: rake.

The prosaic meaning of rake—a tool with teeth for scraping and bringing things like leaves together—comes from the Old English words raca and ræce, which likely derived from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic root rak-, meaning to gather or heap up. Similar words exist in Old Norse: reka, Old High German: rehho, and Gothic: rikan.

The more colorful meaning of rake—an idle, dissolute person and often a heartless womanizer—comes from the word rakehell. The shortening of rakehell to rake likely became common in the 1650s. Rakehell's origin is fittingly murky. It might be an alteration of the Middle English rakel, meaning rash or headstrong, because of the association with the words rake and Hell. I guess a rake gathers up Hellish habits of personal conduct.

Rakes bring pain and suffering to otherwise good people. Just try raking a half-acre of leaves. The other kind of rake does something similar—dispensing emotional pain and suffering—particularly in novels. Two of the most famous rakes are Vicomte de Valmont from Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Robert Lovelace from Clarissa.

Valmont pursues and falls in love with the virtuous Madame de Tourvel but then cruelly deserts her at the urging of the Marquise de Merteuil who had challenged Valmont to corrupt the young Cécile de Volanges. Valmont dies in a duel with Cécile's lover but not before destroying Merteuil's reputation. Emotionally wrecked by Valmont's rejection, Tourvel succumbs to a fever after learning of his death.

Lovelace desires to marry the virtuous Clarissa Harlowe, whose family insists she enter into a marriage with Roger Solmes, a union more economically advantageous to the Harlowe family. Angered at the Harlowe's rejection, Lovelace decides to take revenge on the Harlowe family by marrying Clarissa. He tricks her into eloping with him, but she refuses to marry him. He imprisons her in a brothel and decides that only after destroying her virtue will she marry him. He rapes her. His scheme backfires and Clarissa becomes even more adamant that she will not marry him. She escapes from the brothel but dies from illness and mental duress. Lovelace dies in a duel with Clarissa's cousin.

The machinations are much more complicated than those brief descriptions, but you get the idea. Who is your favorite rake?

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