Thursday, September 4, 2014

Word of the Week: Churl

Anglo-Saxon churl plowing a field, 9th century.
Some words lose their respectability over time, declining from a non-pejorative designation to the level of insult. Churl, and its adjective churlish, is just such a case. In Anglo-Saxon times, a churl was a man. It soon took on a more precise definition, meaning a freeman of the lowest rank, a non-servile peasant. Rank played an important role in Anglo-Saxon society. The wergild (the price paid to the relatives of a murder victim) was fixed according to rank. For a thegn—an aristocratic retainer of a nobleman—the wergild was six times higher than that of a churl. Knowing the rank of the person you were skewering with a spear was important. Over time, the meaning had less to do with a precise rank in society and meant simply a common or country person of low birth, the opposite of nobility and royalty. Sometime during the 1300s and 1400s, the word assumed a negative connotation as rude manners was added to low birth. By the late 1500s, the word farmer replaced churl and husbandman as the term to denote someone who works the land. Churl was clearly on a downward slide. It hit bottom by the nineteenth century when the pejorative meaning—a rude, ill-bred, lout—that we're familiar with today became common.

Churl comes from the Old English ceorl, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *kerlaz and *karlaz. It has cognates in various Germanic languages including Old Frisian zerl, Dutch kerel, German kerl, and Old Norse karl. The Old English version of churlish is cierlisc.

The ChurlsAnd here's a bit of music trivia. A rock band based in Toronto during the late 1960s called themselves The Churls. They released two albums in 1969: The Churls and Send Me No Flowers. Neither album proved very successful. The band appears to be making a reference to the word's original meaning. Notice the medieval style costumes on the album cover. Did they dress as Anglo-Saxon churls for concerts?


  1. It's a nice word to say, though, isn't it? Pleasing on the tongue. Perhaps I should try using it...

  2. It's interesting to find out a word came to the meaning it has today, and it makes me wonder what our words will mean in a few more hundred years. Perhaps, churl will make a comeback or even become "hot" in tomorrow's language. :)
    The idea of a rock band dressing up as Anglo-Saxon churls for concerts struck my funny bone today and I needed that. :) Thanks!