Word of the Day: Ragamuffin

March 30, 2012 in Word of the Day

We are near the end of Henry IV part I, on the battlefield not far from Shrewsbury. King Henry’s army is locked in bloody combat with the rebel forces, led by Douglas and Hotspur. Completely out of place, and having no truck with any idea of military honour, Falstaff surveys the corpses around him.

FALSTAFF Though I could ‘scape shot-free at London, I fear the shot here; here’s no scoring but upon the pate.–Soft! who are you? Sir Walter Blunt: there’s honour for you! here’s no vanity! I am as hot as molten lead, and as heavy too: God keep lead out of me! I need no more weight than mine own bowels. I have led my ragamuffins where they are peppered: there’s not three of my hundred and fifty left alive; and they are for the town’s end, to beg during life. But who comes here?

This is the only time that Shakespeare uses the word “ragamuffins”, describing the rag-tag band of conscripts and volunteers that Falstaff has led to their deaths before the enemy bullets, the “lead” and “shot” mentioned here, the latter also meaning a reckoning or shopkeeper’s bill.

As for ‘ragamuffin’, the word first appears as the name of a demon in Langland’s Piers Plowman (1387), and then is attested frequently from 1586 on as a term for a “person [...] of a ragged, dirty and (frequently) disreputable appearance.” (OED). The origin of the term is obscure: the ‘raga-’ prefix is clearly descended from ‘ragged’ and ‘raggy’, both of which were used for the devil as well as for disorderly appearance; the ‘muffin’, however, is a bit trickier. One authority holds that it comes from a Middle French word for devil, another from an Anglo-Norman term for a demon (the ‘mal-felon’, which gives ‘maffelon’ and then ‘muffin’…

A final possibility, especially given Falstaff’s habitual references to food and inns earlier in the passage, is that ragamuffin is itself meant with a punning etymology here: these ragged, dead soldiers have after all been thoroughly seasoned with bullets, just as one would “pepper” an Elizabethan loaf or ‘muffin’. Such an idea, the combination of death and eating, is found elsewhere in Shakespeare, Hamlet himself telling King Claudius that the murdered Polonius is “at supper”, just “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten”…

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