The origin of 'malcontent'

Nigri, L ORCID: 2012, 'The origin of 'malcontent'' , Notes and Queries, 59 (1) , pp. 37-40.

This is the latest version of this item.

[img] PDF - Published Version
Restricted to Repository staff only

Download (97kB) | Request a copy


WHEN and how did malcontent enter the language? Although Italian malcontento and French malcontent had been current for some two hundred years, there is good evidence that the English word did not come into use before the last quarter of the sixteenth century, at the same time that the malcontent as a literary and pathological type appeared in prose, satiric poetry, and drama. Nor does the word seem to have arrived simply as the result of influence by one or other of these two languages. When, in his 1578 textbook on translating between Italian and English, John Florio wished to render ‘mal contenti’, he offered merely ‘not contented’.1 Conversely, when George Pettie used ‘mal contents’ in his 1581 translation of the French translation of Stefano Guazzo's La Civil Conversazione, the word was his own: the French version speaks of men gripped by ‘l'indignation’ and the Italian by ‘lo sdegno’.2 Pettie's is the OED's first example of malcontent. It notes a succession of derivative forms straight after this: malcontented in 1582, then malcontent as an adjective (1583), malcontent as a verb (1584), malcontentment (1587), malcontent meaning ‘state of discontentment’ (1591), and malcontentedness (1594).3 Such a rapid proliferation is evidence that the term was at this date both novel and appealing, and there is more. The 1587 revision of Holinshed's Chronicles uses malcontent (in various forms) forty-two times, including one occasion when it turns ‘rebels’ into ‘mal-contents’, whereas the original of 1577 does not use it at all; and William Rankins's 1588 satire The English Ape suggests that those who are ‘never content … or their estate holdeth above their deserte’ be branded ‘Malecontents’, which is ‘the newe found name’.4 Four early printed uses of malcontent have escaped notice. Three, in two works by different …

Item Type: Article
Schools: Schools > School of Humanities, Languages & Social Sciences > Centre for English Literature and Language
Journal or Publication Title: Notes and Queries
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Refereed: Yes
ISSN: 0029-3970
Related URLs:
Funders: Non funded research
Depositing User: Dr Lucia Nigri
Date Deposited: 24 Feb 2015 12:39
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2022 16:16

Available Versions of this Item

  • The origin of 'malcontent'. (deposited 24 Feb 2015 12:39) [Currently Displayed]

Actions (login required)

Edit record (repository staff only) Edit record (repository staff only)