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villain, n.

Brit. Hear pronunciation/ˈvɪlən/
U.S. Hear pronunciation/ˈvɪlən/
Forms:  α. Middle English vyleyn, 1500s villein(e; Middle English vilaine, Middle English vylayn (Middle English vil-), Middle English–1500s vylayne; Middle English vyllayn, 1500s vyllayne, vyllaine, Middle English–1600s villayne (1600s villayn), 1500s–1600s villaine, 1600s– villain. β. Middle English velaun, 1500s vylane, vilane (Scottish veill-, vill-, willane), villan, wellantt-, 1600s villiane, 1600s–1700s villian, 1700s villin.(Show Less)
Frequency (in current use):  Show frequency band information
Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Old French vilein, vilain, villain (= Provençal vilan  , Italian villano  , Spanish villano  , Portuguese villão  ) < popular Latin *villānum  , accusative singular of *villānus   (see villains adj.), < Latin villa  villa n.   See also villein n.
 1. Originally, a low-born base-minded rustic; a man of ignoble ideas or instincts; in later use, an unprincipled or depraved scoundrel; a man naturally disposed to base or criminal actions, or deeply involved in the commission of disgraceful crimes:

 a. Used as a term of opprobrious address.

1303   R. Mannyng Handlyng Synne 11557   Goddys treytour, and ryȝt vyleyn! Hast þou no mynde of Marye Maudeleyn.
1320–30   Horn Ch. (Ritson) 857   The begger answered in that tide, Vilaine, cunestow nought ride?
c1380   Sir Ferumbras (1879) l. 5471   Þanne he cryde and gan to sayn: ‘Whar art þow, Charlis, þow vylayn?’
?1553  (c1501)    G. Douglas Palice of Honour (London) i. l. 645 in Shorter Poems (1967) 46   Ane me fand quhilk said in greif disdenȝeit Auant velane [1579 Edinb. veillane] thou reclus imperfyte.
a1593   C. Marlowe Tragicall Hist. Faustus (1604) sig. C3v   Villaine, haue I not bound thee to tel me any thing?
a1616   W. Shakespeare Taming of Shrew (1623) i. ii. 19   Now knocke when I bid you: sirrah villaine .  View more context for this quotation
1622   T. Dekker & P. Massinger Virgin Martir iv. sig. K2v   Theoph. It matters not, We can discharge this worke without his helpe... Sap. Villaine.
1663   A. Cowley Cutter of Coleman-St. v. xii. 67   Villain, Rebel, Traitor, out o' my sight.
1764   H. Walpole Castle of Otranto i   Presumptuous villain! cried Manfred, dost thou provoke my wrath?
1821   W. Scott Kenilworth III. xvi. 325   Drunken villain,..thy idleness and debauched folly will stretch a halter ere it be long.
1855   C. Kingsley Westward Ho! v   ‘Villain! give me your papers!’ cried Amyas.

1303—1855(Hide quotations)


 b. In descriptive use. (Common from c1590.)

c1400   Rom. Rose 2183   Thise vilayns arn withouten pitee, Frendship, love, and alle bounté. I nyl resseyve unto my servise Hem that ben vilayns of emprise.
1474   W. Caxton tr. Game & Playe of Chesse (1883) iii. iii. 99   They..answerd to hym that he was a vylayne to requyre & desire of them thynge that was so peryllous.
1484   W. Caxton tr. G. de la Tour-Landry Bk. Knight of Tower (1971) lxxxxv. 128   For he is a chorle and a vylayne that of his mouthe sayth ony vylonye.
1509   A. Barclay Brant's Shyp of Folys (Pynson) f. ccv   In all the worlde nought vyler can I fynde Nor wors, than is a fals unkynde vylayne.
a1533   Ld. Berners tr. A. de Guevara Golden Bk. M. Aurelius (1546) sig. E.vijv   The greateste vyllany in a villayne is to be gyuen in largesse of lyes.
a1616   W. Shakespeare Comedy of Errors (1623) v. i. 29   Thou art a Villaine to impeach me thus, Ile proue mine honor, and mine honestie Against thee presently, if thou dar'st stand.  View more context for this quotation
1624   J. Smith Gen. Hist. Virginia iii. 84   The two most exact villaines in all the Country.
1719   D. Defoe Life Robinson Crusoe 302   He told me there were two desperate Villains among them, that it was scarce safe to shew any Mercy to.
1769   ‘Junius’ Stat Nominis Umbra (1772) I. xv. 99   Every villain fancies himself a man of abilities.
1814   Ld. Byron Corsair i. xi. 14   He knew himself a villain—but he deem'd The rest no better than the thing he seem'd.
a1842   T. Arnold Hist. Later Rom. Commonw. (1845) II. 56   The soldiers..told him that..if he played the villain he might win the throne.
1869   J. Ruskin Queen of Air §128   They are not made villains by the commission of a crime, but were villains before they committed it.
in extended use.
1691   J. Hartcliffe Treat. Virtues 241   Thus they slander Human Nature, and make a Villain of it.
1832   Q. Rev. Mar. 234   Perchance one hound in ten may throw his tongue as he goes to inform his comrades, as it were, that the villain is on before them.
1535   Bible (Coverdale) Job xxx. 8   They were the children of fooles & vylanes, which are deed awaye from the worlde.
1570   in J. Cranstoun Satirical Poems Reformation (1891) I. (S.T.S.) xiii. 95   Wa worth ȝow Uillanis that slew that Prince maist wise.
1573   in W. H. Stevenson Rec. Borough Nottingham (1889) IV. 154   For be-callyng the Constabelles knaves and wellanttes.
1593   G. Harvey Pierces Supererogation 111*   The Straunge Newes of the railing Villan.
1601   B. Jonson Every Man in his Humor v. i. sig. K4v   Gui. I obey thee varlet; but for these villianesMus. Keepe the peace I charge you sir.
1678   J. Bunyan Pilgrim's Progress 132   He hath not been afraid to rail on you, my Lord,..calling you an ungodly Villian .  View more context for this quotation
1704   J. Blair in W. S. Perry Hist. Coll. Amer. Colonial Church: Virginia (1870) I. 132   Several of them of the most noted good preachers he affronted and abused with the most opprobrious & villifying names as Dog, Rogue, Rascal, Villin, Jesuit.
1727   Philip Quared. (1816) 66   Those villians had most sacrilegiously rifled and ransacked his habitation.

c1400—1869(Hide quotations)


 c. Used playfully, or without serious imputation of bad qualities. Also applied to a woman.

1609   W. Shakespeare Troilus & Cressida iii. ii. 31   Ile fetch her; it is the prettiest villaine .  View more context for this quotation
a1616   W. Shakespeare Twelfth Night (1623) ii. v. 12   Enter Maria...Heere comes the little villaine: How now my Mettle of India?
a1616   W. Shakespeare Comedy of Errors (1623) i. ii. 19   A trustie villaine sir, that very oft..Lightens my humour with his merry iests.  View more context for this quotation
1815   W. Scott Guy Mannering I. i. 11   Jock, ye villain,..are ye lying routing there, and a young gentleman seeking the way to the Place?
1836   C. Dickens Pickwick Papers (1837) ix. 84   ‘Where's that villain, Joe?’ ‘Here I am; but I han't a willin,’ replied a voice. It was the fat boy's.
1908   R. Bagot Anthony Cuthbert xxiii. 300   If this afternoon's post does not bring me a letter from Jim,..I shall telegraph to the young villain.

1609—1908(Hide quotations)


 d. (Usually with the.) The character in a play, novel, etc., whose evil motives or actions form an important element in the plot. Also transferred, esp. in villain of the piece.

1822   C. Lamb in London Mag. Feb. 178/2   The fact is, you do not believe in such characters as Surface—the villain of artificial comedy—even while you read or see them.
1854   A. C. Mowatt Autobiogr. Actress vii. 133   Ayesha, the villain of the piece,..had received a great wrong.
1867   E. A. Freeman Hist. Norman Conquest I. iv. 252   Arnulf, as usual, appears as the villain of the piece.
1879   D. Cook Nights at the Play (1883) II. 222   Mr. Vezin represented the villain, a welcher, pretending to be a Russian count.
1928   P. G. Wodehouse Money for Nothing ix. 200   I'm sure you're on the right track. This bird Twist is the villain of the piece.
1937   Discovery May 163/1   Fascism, in its ultra-national aspect, is the villain of the piece.
1978   P. Sutcliffe Oxf. Univ. Press v. i. 173   Ernest Barker and others took on Nietzsche and Treitschke, who could be regarded as the ultimate villains of the piece.

1822—1978(Hide quotations)


 e. A professional criminal. slang.

1960   Observer 24 Jan. 7/2   Suppose..a bogy did get it up for a villain now and again by making sure that some gear was found in his flat?
1963   L. Deighton Horse under Water xxxi. 125   This villain is doing a nice Cabinet Minister's home.
1975   Sunday Tel. 7 Dec. 1/2   A flying squad officer said: ‘As far as we know these are no ordinary villains. We believe they are Irish IRA.’
1977   L. Meynell Hooky gets Wooden Spoon xiii. 156   There'll be a getaway car..waiting close to the house with a villain in it... I don't like thieving villains.

1960—1977(Hide quotations)


2. A bird (esp. a hawk) of a common or inferior species. Obsolete.

1481   W. Caxton tr. Myrrour of Worlde ii. viii. 85   Ther ben popengayes..of whom, as men saye, they that haue on eche foot fyue clawes ben gentyl, and the vylayns haue but thre.
1575   G. Turberville Bk. Faulconrie 123   Of all kinde of hawkes.., as Sacres, Gerfalcons, peregrine Falcons, and Uilanes.
1575   G. Turberville Bk. Faulconrie 124   The Uyllaine and the Lanerette may be sette vpon the stone incontinently, as soone as they be made.

1481—1575(Hide quotations)


 3. A person or animal of a troublesome character in some respect. Const. to with infinitive.

1895   J. G. Millais Breath from Veldt vi. 134   The sable is a villain to run.

1895—1895(Hide quotations)




  villain-like adv.

1608   W. Shakespeare King Lear xxiv. 96   He..That names me traytor, villain-like he lies.  View more context for this quotation
a1616   W. Shakespeare Cymbeline (1623) v. vi. 218   Villain-like, I lye.  View more context for this quotation

1608—a1616(Hide quotations)


This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1917; most recently modified version published online December 2020).

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