Chapati Mystery (a blog by Sepoy, “a doctoral candidate in History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations department at the University of Chicago”) has a great post about the history of the word termagant ‘a quarrelsome, scolding woman; a shrew.’ The OED says “Name of an imaginary deity held in mediæval Christendom to be worshipped by Muslims,” which is interesting in and of itself, but the question is, where did the name come from? Sepoy investigates various proposed solutions, all more or less unsatisfactory (ta-rabbi-l-ka’bati ‘by the Lord of Ka’aba’??); we’ll probably never know the answer, but this sort of quest makes us very happy here at Chateau Languagehat.


  1. This is funny. I knew the definition “quarrelsome, scolding woman” but always assumed the word referred ultimately to a kind of bird. I must have been thinking of a ptarmigan.

  2. Pierre, OED gives termagant as also an obsolete and erroneous spelling of ptarmigan.
    For some reason, I had thought a link had been made with Tamerlane. But I find no evidence connecting the two, now that I look.
    Interesting inter-gender moves, here. Cf hoyden, punk (though OED does not join the male-by-default current sense and the old female-only sense), and virago (male, in Shakespeare).

  3. A ptarmigan — I have double-checked this — seems to be a sort of grouse, not a very aggressive bird. If it had the personality of a jay or a gull I would more readily believe there was a meaningful connection with “termagant”.
    Is it possible that someone else in history made the same mental mistake I seem to have made, and thereby generated a reference for the OED to report to us today?
    I’m more willing to believe that it was the supposed name of a foreign deity. People love to speculate wildly on the beliefs of distant foreigners. Professional wrestling used to provide a good example of this: does anybody remember the “Iron Sheik” character who flourished briefly after the Iran hostage crisis? Clearly representative of Persian culture, he was. 🙂

  4. Well the punk transformation is interesting, but it makes a lot of sense.
    As for “virago”, it may be male in Shakespeare, but it was female all the way back to Plautus.

  5. I should perhaps clarify something about the OED’s treatment of termagant: there two quite separate entries, and no link is made between the two that might connect the bird to the harridan.
    And yes, of course the usual sense of virago has been female. But usage by Shakespeare counts as noteworthy, as I am old-fashioned enough to think. We should also remark Joyce’s meticulous choice of Virag (strictly, of course, Virág, as Hungarian for flower) for the original family surname of the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom. The androgyny of this hero is a famously salient theme. There are some other etymological things to say about Joyce’s Virag (and also concerning his Kinch), some of which have, to my knowledge, not seen the light of scholarly publication. I may remedy this when I can get around to it, non-Joyce-expert though I be.

  6. Dammit, Noetica, don’t be a tease! Spill it!

  7. Um, sorry Hatman. I feel proprietorial on this one, unwarrantedly perhaps. I leave it as a ginger to speculation.

  8. OK, OK, but let me know when you expose it to the light of day, huh? I loves me some Joyce.

  9. Weird. I have a non-professional Joycean friend who also gets very proprietary about Joyce insights, but I’m pretty sure he’s not Noetica.
    What aggravates me so when I talk to him is that the early Joyceans seem to me role models for amateur and academic scholars working openly together in the spirit of mutually pleasurable fannishness. A dream betrayed and all that.
    He told me a few months ago that I’d finally convinced him to send his pivotal Finnegans Wake discovery to JJQ. We’ll see….

  10. By all means let us exagminate round his factification together.

  11. [LH, I’ve been travelling, and so incomunicado. I write in haste. I may email you when I get back to civilisation re Joyce (rejoice!). The couple of little things I have to say about those names may be inconsequential, but I’ll be interested to have your opinion.]

  12. ktschwarz says

    Termagant was updated by the OED in 2017. Still no answer, but some other trails to follow:

    In the medieval French chansons de geste, Tervagan was one of three idols, along with Mahound (see Mahound n.) and Apollin (i.e. Apollo), supposedly worshipped by the ‘Saracens’, i.e. Muslims. The origin of the name has been the subject of much conjecture. A frequent suggestion connects it with classical Latin ter thrice (see ter- comb. form) and vagant-, vagans wandering (see vagant adj.), with allusion to the mythological triple personification of the moon which moves about or ‘wanders’ as Selene (in heaven), Diana (on earth), and Proserpina (in the underworld); with Italian Trivigante, perhaps compare classical Latin trivius ‘of or belonging to a three-way crossroads’, whose feminine form trivia occurs as an epithet of the name of the moon goddess Diana whose sinister aspect (identified with the Greek goddess Hekate) was believed to be present at crossroads. See further H. Grégoire ‘L’étymologie de Tervagant’ in Mélanges d’histoire du théâtre du Moyen Âge et de la Renaissance offerts à Gustave Cohen (1950) 67–74, and (for an overview of several other etymological suggestions) A. Dauzat in Revue internationale d’onomastique (1950) 2 273–4.

    I agree with the commenter at Chapati Mystery who said there’s no need to look for a source in Arabic, it’s just something made up by Europeans.

    From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words, a Shakespeare citation and a speculation:

    The word was borrowed into English and became the usual name in the medieval morality plays for an overbearing, violent and turbulent character, the supposed god of the Saracens, who was always dressed in Eastern robes. He was borrowed by Shakespeare and put into the mouth of that early theatre critic, Hamlet: “I could have such a Fellow whipt for o’erdoing Termagant: it out-Herods Herod.” The name had by then been generalised to mean a quarrelsome person or bully.

    Around the middle of the seventeenth century, the word changed sex to become our modern term for a quarrelsome woman. It’s likely that people were confused by the Saracen’s robes in the morality plays and assumed that the supposed god Termagant was really female.

    (That quote from Hamlet — where he’s advising the Players not to chew too much scenery — used to be in the OED, but it’s been dropped, perhaps because they already have plenty of quotes from the period.) The “confused by the robes” theory is ingenious, but I think plain old sexism is sufficient to explain the shift.

Speak Your Mind