Gamin, Scout.

A couple of words for related to young people with unknown or uncertain etymologies (the words, that is, not the people):

1) Gamin, which the OED defines as “A neglected boy who has been left to run about the streets; a street urchin, a guttersnipe; (more generally) a streetwise or impudent child”:

Etymology: < French gamin (1805; 1803 in the more general meaning ‘young boy’; 1765 denoting a glassmaker’s assistant), further etymology uncertain.
A suggestion that the French word is a borrowing (with remodelling after words in -in -ine suffix⁴) < German regional (Alemannic) Gammel uproar, row (or a related word in the same family) is very uncertain.

The TLFi cautiously says “formé peut-être en Lorraine sur le rad. germ. gamm-, cf. alémanique gammel « gaîté, joie bruyante; vaurien »; AHD goes all in with “probably” and a fuller account:

[French, probably of eastern dialectal French origin (Lorraine) : *gamm-, root meaning “good-for-nothing, vagabond” and of German origin (akin to dialectal German (Hesse, the Rhineland) gammeln, to bum around, be idle or unproductive, from Middle High German gamel, game, fun, mirth, variant of gamen, from Old High German gaman; akin to Old English gamen, game) + French -in, diminutive noun suffix.]

2) I recently learned from one of those British cop shows set in Oxford the very specific term scout “At Oxford (also at Yale and Harvard): A college servant.” (The entry is from 1911; I have no idea if anyone still uses this word at Yale and/or Harvard.) Here the etymology is simply “Of unknown origin: identity with scout n.⁴ [“The action of spying out or watching in order to gain information”] has been conjectured, but evidence is wanting.” If you’re curious, this is the sixth and last scout in the OED (the first is “A high overhanging rock”); here are the citations:

1708 T. Hearne Remarks & Coll. (1886) II. 117 One shilling to goody Earl a Scout yt belongs to Oriel Colledge.
1750 Student 1 No. 2. 55 My scout, indeed, is a very learned fellow.
1800 Sporting Mag. 15 85 Waked at eight o’clock by the scout, to tell me the bell was going for prayers.
?1845 Yale Literary Mag. 11 282 in B. H. Hall Coll. College Words (1856) 403 We had to send for his factotum or scout, an old black fellow.
1888 Mrs. H. Ward Robert Elsmere I. i. v. 100 The scout, who intrusively asked him every morning what he would have for breakfast.
1935 D. L. Sayers Gaudy Night v. 91 ‘The scouts are all women of excellent character, so far as I know,’ said the Bursar.
1972 Oxf. Times 26 May 1/3 Miss Bootes, who has been a scout at St. Hilda’s College for 25 years, was presented with the teapot on Wednesday.

I hope Miss Bootes was happy with her teapot.


  1. A scout is for young people but “scout” is not a word for young people.

  2. Excellent point, and I’ve amended the post accordingly. You can see I didn’t go to Oxford.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    The word may have been current at Yale in the 1840’s per the citation to an ambiguously dated issue of the Lit, but not so much in the 1980’s. And I’ve never heard it from Old Blues of my acquaintance whose own college days go back to the 1950’s. At least as late as the 1960’s some of the posher secret-ish societies may have had a houseservant or two (whom the posh young lads had probably recently learned to refer to as “Negro” rather than “colored”) on staff, but I don’t think that was the same 1-on-1 model that had previously prevailed in the Oxbridge context and AFAIK (w/o claiming omniscience) the “scout” lexeme was not used. Someone once told me that the Fence Club (+1979, after a long decline and wasting illness) had had such a fellow through the ’60’s whose duties included cultivating a garden on the roof which could supply fresh mint for such mint juleps as the undergraduate members might require be mixed for them.

  4. I recall (from a footnote in an annotated edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories) that the equivalent, more transparent, term for a college servant at Cambridge was gypsy or gyp. I’ve never encountered that one in the wild, but I do remember occasional references to the residential cleaning ladies as “scouts” in Oxford-centered episodes of Inspector Morse (et sequels).

  5. Re 1), I more often come across the fem. gamine. Or that used as adj. (Wiktionary has some quotes.)

  6. @AntC: Indeed, while gamine (OED: “A female gamin or street urchin; (by extension) an attractively pert, mischievous, or elfish girl or young woman, usually small and slim and with short hair”) is fairly familiar to me, and I’ve used it a few times in writing, the primarily male version gamin is much less so. Both of them are attested in the English starting from the first half of the nineteenth century; the first (1848) OED cite for gamine actually includes both words:

    He is generally surrounded at such times by a bevy of from forty to fifty scholars, gamins or gamines as the case may be.

    Both of them are also listed as adjectives, with parallel meanings.

    I think I may have picked up gamine from somewhere in the works of Jack Vance. However, it does not actually appear to occur in the Vance book I though was most likely to contain it, The Palace of Love.

  7. I think I may have picked up gamine …

    It’s used typically of Audrey Hepburn. I also see wikt cites Hotel du Lac Anita Brookner (which I was ready to throw at the wall by about half way through — except it was recommended by a girl …).

  8. i am reminded of a word i’ve never used, but read about in connection with british universities:


    Fagging was a traditional practice in British public schools and also at many other boarding schools, whereby younger pupils were required to act as personal servants to the eldest boys.[1][2][3] Although probably originating earlier, the first accounts of fagging appeared in the late 17th century.[4]: 23  Fagging sometimes involved physical abuse[4]: 23–25  and/or sexual abuse.[5] Although lessening in severity over the centuries, the practice continued in some institutions until the end of the 20th century

  9. From Wodehouse’s The Rise of Minna Nordstrom:

    Until now he had never studied Vera Prebble’s appearance to any great extent or thought about her much in any way. When she had entered his employment a few days before, he had noticed, of course, that she had a sort of ethereal beauty; but then every girl you see in Hollywood has either ethereal beauty or roguish gaminerie or a dark, slumberous face that hints at hidden passion.

  10. When I was up at Cambridge (1980s), there were no longer any gyps, but kitchens in student accommodation were called gyprooms.

  11. @JWB – check with Geoff Kabaservice. If anyone knows when “scout” stopped being current at Yale (or if it ever was) it would be him.

  12. read about in connection with british universities Fagging was at secondary schools, not universities. While some university-level institutions have “School” in their names, “school” as a common noun in British English does not usually extend so high.

    Attempt to popularise “gamin” might be hampered by the rise of “gammon”.

  13. Glenda Jackson obit. In the Grauniad today gamine in a worldly English way,.

    I remember Glenda with huge respect. But “gamine” in the same breath as “worldly”? Also as “angular”? Bollox.

    (I’ve just been watching her on YouTube speaking in Parliament, skewering Margaret Thatcher as a bitter disappointment to feminists everywhere. My grandmother — born 1896 — thought exactly the same.)

  14. Back in the 1970s and before, “scouts” at Oxford’s men-only colleges (i.e. most) were generally (always?) male, and given responsibility for the rooms on a particular staircase in college. I believe “gyps” at Cambridge were male, too, as opposed to “bedders”, who were female.

    Scouts could be very proprietorial about “their” rooms, and it was (still is?) a very difficult relationship for anyone like me who was state-educated and had spent their first 18 years at home, not incarcerated in some private institution and habituated to the idea of “servants”…

  15. Gavin Wraith says

    Another type of college servant at Cambridge was the “bedder”, usually a woman, who made up the beds, if they were not still occupied, and cleaned the rooms. By college statute she should be “senex et horrida”, for obvious reasons. Some even made “bed tea” for their young gentlemen. My mother once arranged for two visiting Americans, Russ and Owen, to stay the night in a guest room at the Master’s Lodge in Trinity (her own house being too small, and Lady Butler being a friend) and they suffered some minor cultural shock at being woken by an old lady serving them tea in bed.

  16. David Marjanović says

    While some university-level institutions have “School” in their names, “school” as a common noun in British English does not usually extend so high.

    This is university, not school

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Hotel du Lac Anita Brookner (which I was ready to throw at the wall by about half way through — except it was recommended by a girl …)

    Aperçu of the plot: A man ultimately fails to entice a woman into being his housemaid and hostess with the mostest, with no (other) strings attached. Another way to put it: some people find it very hard to Just Say No.

    It’s not a novel that would automatically appeal to men.

  18. Kaggsy didn’t care for Hotel du Lac but loved her first published novel, A Start in Life, so I’m going to try the latter.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    @Vanya. Not sure if it’s worth bothering Geoff about. I did have the clever idea of seeing if the word appears in the relevant sense in any of George W. Pierson’s numerous historical works about the university, but they are for some reason (who in New Haven needs to get paid off to change this?) in the google books corpus only in “no preview” mode, making them effectively unsearchable.

  20. I learned gamine from one of Nabokov’s interviews in Strong Opinions:

    “By the way, when we visited Robbe-Grillet, his petite, pretty wife, a young actress, had dressed herself a la gamine in my honor, pretending to be Lolita, and she continued the performance the next day, when we met again at a publisher’s luncheon in a restaurant. After pouring wine for everyone but her, the waiter asked, ‘Voulez-vous un Coca-Cola, Mademoiselle?’ It was very funny, and Robbe-Grillet, who looks so solemn in photographs, roared with laughter.”

    (No comment)

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    Ugh. If you enjoyed this, you will LOVE Gainsbourg “Lemon incest” or the other one with the ice lolly…


    A l’âge de 21 ans, je continuais à porter des jupes plissées et des nattes. On avait l’impression que j’étais âgée de 12 ans. Lorsque Nabokov m’a rencontrée, il était persuadé que je m’étais déguisée en lolita pour lui. Alain lui a alors répondu par la négative. Je m’habillais ainsi tous les jours.

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