Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Field Guide to Street Children

How often have you batted a tiny hand away from the moneysacks that hang from your belt, shouting “Be away from me, ye wastrels”?

Have you ever stopped, mid-shout, and wondered if you were using the correct word for the type of impish chield-fiend you’ve encountered? Fear not! In time for your next back-alley stroll, I’ve found the word for you!
tatterdemalion (TA-ter-dee-MAYL-yen or TA-ter-dee-MAH-lee-un) — noun: a person dressed in ragged clothing. adjective: 1. ragged or disreputable in appearance. 2. being in a decayed state or condition.
All in all, it’s a wonderful word that makes light of the target’s station in life whilst simultaneously boasting enough syllables to give the speaker an air of learned superiority. Really, how better to put one in their place that to slander them with a word they won’t (and can’t) know? The etymology is unclear, with the first part most like coming from the word tatter but perhaps being related to the word Tartar — referring to one of several historically disadvantaged or dangerous peoples causing or receiving trouble in Eurasia — with that last part being simply a “fantastic second element,” according to Etymonline, whatever that means.

According to a system that I just now made up, tatterdemalion is actually the kindest word one could use to describe a poor child whose family made the unfortunate decision to be poor. On its end of the “Young Unfortunates” spectrum are the wee ones who are more likely to elicit pity or paternal affection than other the other ones, who are more likely to stab you with a penknife after being paid a mere nickel by one of your longtime social rivals. Let’s have a look at the various gradations, so as to prepare yourself for your next visit to an orphanage, an urchin farm or the underground bowels of that factory you secretly own.

(rumpled in a way that you’d consider adoption, Mr. Drummond-style)

(you don’t necessarily blame the child for its under-nourished condition)

(appealing in his poorness, yet lively enough to cause trouble)

(a ragamuffin who has somehow obtained the amount of daily calories that a wealthy child would get and is therefore unpredictable)

(the child has made it into the house and his mischief has a sinister edge)

Hobo Jr.
(the child’s conduct is wine-propelled and his mirth is just as destructive as his malice.)

(crafty enough to use his unfortunate condition to catch you off guard; keep walking to avoid the ambush)

(any young person in the company of two or more poor children; v. dangerous)

(rubs his hand grime into your wounds, ensuring your death)

Please update your discussions of the your neighborhood watercress salesgirl accordingly.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

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