“incontinent varlets”

A colleague has a calendar of Shakespearean insults which he sometimes shares with us. One recent insult included varlet, which got me thinking about what that actually means. It’s a variant of valet, which comes from vassal + et (diminutive), which in turn comes from Latin vassus, servant. 

I had always pronounced valet to rhyme with ballet, so I was surprised to hear the characters on Downton Abbey pronouncing it to rhyme with ballot. That was the original pronunciation. I think the first pronunciation arose later when actual valets fell out of general use and people read the word rather than hearing it. Valet parking always rhymes with ballet, though. 

The Shakespeare’s Words website shows 27 uses of varlet and associated forms. Without checking each one, it is just possible that some of them mean manservant without any accusation of roguery. Varlets come in various flavours, from thou precious varlet (probably in the sense of flagrant, gross) and a good varlet, through a brazen-faced varlet, dishonest varlet, dissembling abominable varlet, incontinent varlets (that needs some context), male varlet (which seems to suggest the existence of a female varlet somewhere (compare female valets, which exist)), thou naughty varlet, the veriest varlet, varlet vile and wicked varlet to the shouting varletry.


2 thoughts on ““incontinent varlets”

    • Dictionary.com’s usage note for knave, rascal, rogue and scoundrel includes that are sometimes used more-or-less positively, but knave and scoundrel aren’t. Villain also springs to mind, but serf seems to have retained its original meaning only.


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