Saturday, May 2, 2009

Shakespeare’s Scabby, Flabby Onion

I had something else planned out for this week’s word: a French-derived beauty whose melodic sound was matched by a pleasant definition. Then I began to feel that the word was not appropriately strange — wonderful though it might have been. This happens sometimes. Perhaps I’m underread. Or it could also be that I just blow past certain words, never properly grasping what they mean and otherwise ignoring them until I happen across them in dictionaries, the letters in sequence finally laid out side-by-side with pronunciations and definitions. Whatever the case, you will not be reading much about reverie, “a state of abstract musing, a daydream,” here today. In its place is something foul andmean-spirited, though every bit as French in its origin.
ronion (RUN-yun) — noun: a scabby or mangy creature.
Merriam-Webster claims use of the word — which is also often spelled ronyon and less often runnion — dates back to at least 1598. The most popular usage, however, seems to be Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, first published in 1602. Mister Ford hurls the term at Falstaff, who is dressed as a woman at the time. The line, in full, reads as “Out of my door, you witch, you rag, you baggage, you polecat, you ronion! Out, out!” It’s an interesting string of words. Some editions use hag instead of rag. All that I saw use baggage, which American Heritage Dictionary claims ca be used to mean “a prostitute” or “an impudent girl or woman.” It’s a new one to me, and I wonder if has any connection to the insult old bag, which I had previously assumed referred more to the recipient’s resemblance to a formless, leathery sack than to their personality.

Most dictionary definitions put the etymology of runion as a possible relation to the French rogne, “scab.” And indeed that would be insulting. Peter Bowler’s The Superior Person’s Book of Words, however, notes that the word may instead come from the French rognon, “loins,” and could therefore imply fatness. The word appears again in Macbeth, in the First Witch’s line “‘Aroint thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries,” and would seem to be implying this second interpretation rather than what the word has come to mean. Not that it gets used all that much anymore.

I prefer the spelling ronion over alternatives, if only because I’d imagine most women wouldn’t appreciate being compared to onions, what with their round shape and their layer after layer of acird-smelling surprises. Besides, the existence of bunions and Funyuns has taught me to expect bad things from anything whose name consists of a consonant in front of the word onion.

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