I used the word "termagant" to describe Queen Boadicea, and since it is of Middle East origin I referred it to our specialist in that region, Ed Jajko.  He replies: I constantly learn new things from WAIS.  I have always used "Termagant" without worrying about its origin, which seems to be early medieval European and to have nothing to do with the Arab and Islamic context it supposedly describes, of a goddess on a par with "Mahound."  Various etymologies are given, including what seems to me to be a rather fanciful explanation of the early Italian "trivagante," as a reference to the moon, wandering between heaven, earth, and hell as Selene, Artemis, and Persephone.   But "termagant" had to come from somewhere, so this is not a definitive response.

RH: Webster says it is name of eastern origin brought over by the Crusaders.  The OED says "Name of an imaginary deity held in mediæval Christendom to be worshipped by Muslims: in the mystery plays represented as a violent overbearing personage".  RH: Perhaps the Christians, who viewed Mohammed as the anti-Christ, viewed her as the anti-Virgin Mary .  That leaves the question: DId the Crusaders actually see such a cult in the Middle East, and where did the word come from?  We await illumination from Ed.

President Anthony Smith of Magdalen College, Oxford, writes: The term 'termagant' was originally applied to men and then switched gender. Some used to derive the word from a Saxon idol 'tyr magan' (= very mighty) but others thought it to come from the Persian tir-magian (= Magian lord or deity). The Crusaders muddled Magianism and Mahometanism. and Termagent was deemed to  be the deity of the Saracens. Termagant appeared in Morality plays as a violent and turbulent figure. Shakespeare in "Hamlet" speaks of 'outdoing Termagant' i.e. exceeding him in villainy. Ariosto in "Orlando Furioso" clearly misunderstood the difference between the two belief systems. It was through the drama that the term came to be applied to women because Termagant, on stage, was always dressed in Oriental robes. which looked to contemporary Europeans like those of a woman. Gradually it came simply to mean, as it does today, virago or an abusive boisterous woman.

RH: Think of all the words male chauvinists can use to insult women: termagant, virago, shrew, scold, and of course bitch.  What men call women tells you more about men than about women.

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: June 8, 2005