A reader from Alaska wrote in, asking why politicians and authors don't consult the dictionary before embarking on their sundry campaigns.
In particular, she wondered, why do people currying public favor ever use the word "rogue" to describe themselves?
I had never thought much about the word. "Rogue" usually brought to mind rogue elephants stampeding through the jungle flattening villages -- and unfortunate villagers. Moreover, I assumed that "going rogue" was not all that bad (unless you're a villager) and was akin to "taking the road less traveled, looking at things in a different way."
But no. Here is what I found in one of my favorite reference books, The Reader's Digest Family Word Finder:
"Rogue (noun): Dishonest person, deceiver, fraud, mountebank, rotter, rascal, scoundrel, scamp, rapscallion, cur, good-for-nothing, wretch, knave, varlet, blackguard, villain, snake in the grass, bad man, bounder, evil-doer, malefactor, miscreant, reprobate, hellion, mischief-maker, scalawag, scamp, devil."
Other references told me that "rogue" started out as thieves' slang for "wandering beggar or tramp," or an idle vagrant "who pretends to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge." It is also a verb ("to cheat") and an adjective ("rogue elephant," or, locally, "rogue donkey.")
I told the Alaskan reader that perhaps politicians did better when they stuck to calling themselves "mavericks." Surely that has no bad connotations, because a maverick is defined as a kinder, gentler creature: "Nonconformist, individualist, independent thinker, one's own man, dissenter, dissident."
It didn't start out that way. A maverick used to be an unbranded calf or cow, and that was because of Texas rancher Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70).
Being careless, Maverick neglected to brand all his calves, but he used it to his benefit. Because his livestock could be identified by having no brand, he reportedly argued, all unmarked cattle must therefore be his.
He certainly deserves our respect for guts if not ranching; he sounds like a real politician and perhaps something of a rogue.
By the way, that wasn't the end of the Maverick line. His grandson, a congressman from Texas, coined the word "gobbledygook" in 1944 in his campaign to eradicate pompous, governmental-sounding language. He failed.
Newsmakers have been labeling themselves ever since Cain lobbied for vegetarianism, and they aren't on just one side of the political aisle. For instance, some office-seekers tell us they want "change."
That sounds innocuous. The books say that "change" comes from the Roman occupation of Gaul and Britain and meant "to exchange or barter." Part of its meaning, however, was "bent or crooked." Moreover, it is related to an Irish word that meant "tax."
Yikes! Taxes leave less change for me.
As I wrote this, a news story came across my desk about the naming of Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year for 2009. The winner was "admonish" (because the U.S. House admonished a congressman for calling the president a liar), but "rogue" was a runner-up and was the only word that also made the 2008 list, according to The Associated Press.
What all this shows us, I think, is that our parents and teachers were right: Words really do matter, especially when we don't bother to use them correctly.
MOORE WORDS: Here's hoping you have a happy, stuffed, blessed Thanksgiving. Watch out, though, for rogue turkeys.
Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or email@example.com.