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The origin of 'malcontent'

Nigri, L



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 …


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

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Jan 1, 2012
Deposit Date Feb 24, 2015
Journal Notes and Queries
Print ISSN 0029-3970
Publisher Oxford University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 59
Issue 1
Pages 37-40
Publisher URL
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