The good, the bad and the in between

by Mellissa Martinez

It is quite clear that our four-year-old Felix has his mind set on dressing as a bad guy for Halloween this year. So far, the costumes being considered are Darth Vader, a vampire and the ‘bad’ Batman. Just the mention of a villain or corrupted good guy causes his eyes to sparkle and a sneaky grin to creep over his face.

Although some parents might worry about this, I see it as a parody of adult behavior. We grown-ups also have a tendency to put a positive spin on not-so-positive people. Over time, there have been many bad guys who have been etymologically romanticized. Consider ‘rascal,’ ‘scoundrel’ or ‘bandit.’ All of these came to English with entirely negative connotations. ‘Rascal’ initially meant ‘a low class, tricky or dishonest person.’ It comes from the Latin rasciare ‘to scrape,’ which also led to ‘rash.’ Its transformation from ‘criminal’ to ‘mischievous’ came from its recurring playful use in the 16th century. By the 17th century, ‘rascal’ was almost entirely devoid of true pejorative connotation. 

‘Bandit’ comes from the Italian bandito meaning ‘outlaw.’ Related words in English are ‘ban,’ ‘banish’ and ‘contraband.’ Although the meaning of bandit is still negative, the expression has been glorified in American culture. We use it to brand T-shirts, wines and tools. And who didn’t want to be (or be with) the likable bad guy in the ’70s favorite Smokey and the Bandit?

The devil is another bad guy who has enjoyed some positive publicity. The playful use of the word came about in the 16th century when devil was used to describe a ‘clever rogue.’ Now, the evildoer is represented in playing cards, vacuums, coffee and clothing. Not to mention the many expressions in English such as lucky devil, handsome devil, little devil and devilish good looks…all with positive connotations.

Some bad guys gain acceptance within specific social groups or genres. It can be argued that Western movies popularized the word ‘desperado,’ which originally meant ‘reckless criminal.’ Similarly, rap culture has embraced terms like ‘gangster’ and ‘thug.’ ‘Thug’ comes from the Hindi thag, which likely came from Sanskrit sthaga meaning ‘cunning, fraudulent or covered’ (also the root of stegosaurus!). The original Indian meaning was ‘murderers and robbers who strangled their victims (for religious zeal).’ When it came to English in the 1600s, ‘thug’ meant ‘ruffian, cutthroat or violent lowbrow.’

Within the realm of rap culture, ‘thug’ now has an arguably sadder but less evil meaning. According to rapper Tupac Shakur a ‘thug’ is someone who is “going through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing [gained] from them.” Sounds somewhat like a desperado to me. Although a thug might be considered as a guy down on his luck in the realm of music, the word retains its unfavorable flavor in the larger platform. This was evident when President Obama found himself in hot water last year for using it to describe young black protesters in Baltimore.

In fact, the use of use of ‘bad guy’ and ‘good guy’ by politicians and military leaders has led to further public disgruntlement. In recent years, presidents and military officials have adopted the expressions ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ to simplify some very complicated situations. They refer to attackers as ‘bad guys’ who want to hurt us (the ‘good guys’) because they don’t like our politics, religion, etc. Some complain that this simplification is infantile. A journalist for AlJazeera recently addressed the issue by writing, “The first time I heard a government official use the term, I cringed. ‘Bad guy’ is the term parents use to describe criminals to their four-year-olds, on the premise that young children lack the capacity for any more nuanced understanding.”

Of course, he is correct. For my four-year-old, bad guys are bad and good guys are good. This is perhaps due to messages he receives from society and his parents. It is possible, however, that at this young age, Felix has picked up on the fact that there isn’t always a clear line. Time and usage have a way of changing the meanings of words, or sometimes the way we perceive good and bad. And, as if to illustrate this, he has finally decided on his costume—he will be a vampire, a good vampire, for Halloween.

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