The news lately is full of the word “dotard,” and all of the news sources feel compelled to add a definition. As if everyone didn’t already know what dotard meant. In the small fishing village whence I come, “Dotard!” is constantly on every man’s lips.
Seriously, I’ve known it since I was eight or ten, on first looking into
Chapman’s Homer The Lord of the Rings. Who can ever forget the scene where Saruman says to Theoden, “Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?”
You have to admire the wizard’s command of invective. (I also admire his use of the word ‘but,” but that’s for another post.)
Still, Saruman should have been a bit more careful with what he withdrew from his word-hoard since “dotard” shares with “wizard” the derogatory suffix, -ard. From bastard to buzzard, -ard is how you tell folks that you don’t think much of some person, animal or object.
I will now tread heavily into Dr. Doyle’s territory (but seeing as I have a degree in the same subject as she, and lots of experience as a writer and medievalist, I’m not going to slow down).
The -ard suffix comes from the Teutonic hart, which entered Low Latin as -ardus, thence to Old French as -ard or -art, then made its way into English after William the Bastard imported every Tomás, Dickon, and Harry in Normandy who couldn’t find an honest job into Angle-land. (Did you hear about the old Saxon chief who knew all the angles?)
Anyway…. that’s where we find folks who are drunkards, dullards, and braggarts. A sluggard is the worst kind of slouch or slug. Cowards, cou-ards, come from the Latin caudus, a tail, as in showing it, via the French. A laggard is someone who lags, really, really badly. A bastard is someone who is the get of unmarried parents; bast is Frankish for marriage. Lollard is obviously derogatory (from lollen, to mumble). A dastard is someone who is dazed (i.e. stupid), and not in a nice way. Stinkard (a smelly or despicable person) and blinkard (someone with weak eyes, thus stupid) are words you don’t hear too much any more, but are perfectly good if you’re playing Scrabble.
Jumping over to the animal kingdom we have the buzzard (an inferior falcon), mallard (a wild drake), and haggard (a wild hawk, not to be confused with haggard, lean, from hagged).
Other things: the tankard (a little bitty tub). The petard (which keeps hoisting people); a variety of explosive which literally means Inferior Fart. The poniard (a very small sword), billiards (referring to the billiard cue as a small stick), and mustard (due to the musty smell).
From the word Spaniard you can tell the English opinion of folks from Spain. Same with Savoyards and Lombards. For that matter, from communard you can tell the language’s opinion of folks who live in communes. The -ard is disguised in cockade, coster-monger (a cost is an apple), beggar, and duffer (duff = deaf, and therefore stupid). A lumber-room was a pawn shop, because so many pawnbrokers were Lombards.
Some -ard words aren’t derived from the Teutonic -ard ending and therefore aren’t derogatory, however. Take lizard. Please. Orchard comes from ort-yard., that is, garden-garden. Custard meant a pie with a crust; the ‘r’ migrated from the front of the word to the back. A leopard is leo (lion) with pardus (panther). A steward is a sty-warden; the keeper of the sty.
A bustard is a slow bird (the -tard here is Latin, the same as in tardy). Hazard comes from the Spanish, azar, a die. Blizzard is an American word, dating to the 18th century, of obscure (possibly Native American) origin.
Which brings us back to wizard and dotard. A wizard is someone of inferior wisdom. And a dotard (the connotation is senility) is one who dotes, that is, is silly, and not in a nice way.