They are always in the news, always have been and probably always will be as long as testosterone exists. But today, I’m not going to rant at the latest outbreaks of barbarian rowdyism. Instead, I just want to point out where these words have come from. You may be surprised!
The Vandals, as most people know, were one of the Germanic tribes that ravaged Gaul, Spain, and North Africa in the 4th–5th centuries and sacked Rome in AD 455. The Romans managed to defeat them a couple of decades later, and since it was – as usual – the victors who wrote the history books, the Vandals got a bad press. They may have originally come from Sweden and their name could be derived from a Germanic verb meaning “wander”. There are different theories. By the first century AD they were in Poland and starting to move south and west in the usual manner of invading hordes.
Thugs came from much further afield. They were a religious organisation of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali, the Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travellers, in a ritually prescribed manner. They were suppressed in the 1830s by the British who were busy establishing their equally brutal Empire in India. (And check out the etymology of assassin if you don’t already know it.)
The Hooligans were a fictitious Irish fighting family in a music-hall song of the 1890s although Clarence Rook, in his 1899 book, Hooligan Nights, claimed that the word came from Patrick Hoolihan (or Hooligan), an Irish bouncer and thief who lived in London.
So it’s the old story of blaming the foreigners for troublesome, violent behaviour. Barbarians were uncivilised tribes whose language sounded like “Bababa” (could have been the 1960’s Beach Boys). The original rowdies were fellows from the lawless American backwoods, ruffians were scabby, scurfy mediaeval Italians, boors were Dutch or German peasants and farmers, and louts were lowly lads who had to bow down respectfully and submit – presumably reluctantly, given the pejorative associations. Oaf is an interesting term, and comes from a Scandinavian word for elf: an oaf was the poor, witless changeling left by the fairies. Finally, with no xenophobic connotations, we have the yob, which is backslang for boy, in other words, boy spelled backwards.
And what is backslang? Many countries have their own varieties of backslang, including the French verlan. In England it started in the nineteenth century among market tradesmen, such as butchers and greengrocers, who wanted to comment privately on their customers. It’s a code that simply requires speaking the phonemes of the written words backwards. And it is still very much alive today – ask your local butcher!