Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 26 March 2005

A Lexicographer writes

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What is the difference between a cad and a bounder? It depends on your dictionary. ‘A man who behaves dishonourably, especially towards women,’ says the New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) of cad, and of bounder, ‘a dishonourable man.’ Both words are marked ‘dated’.

The origin given for cad is: ‘Late 18th century, denoting a passenger picked up by a horse-drawn coach for personal profit.’ This demonstrates the difference between etymology and explanation. Certainly that was the meaning of the word in the late 18th century, but the appeal that the former denotation makes to the imagination does not explain the current meaning of the word. This passenger was not regarded as caddish, to women or anyone else. If anyone was a cad, it was the driver for pocketing the fare he should have paid his employers. A bounder was once a four-wheeled carriage too, but that doesn’t help either.

Cad in the 19th century meant a workmate, or confederate. It was related to the golfer’s caddie, derived from cadet. But there was also a meaning of an ‘omnibus conductor’. Dickens uses it in Pickwick. This still doesn’t enlighten.

Caddie meant ‘a lad or man who waits about on the lookout for chance employment’ in 19th-century Scotland. But in 1831 William Hone, that rather unpleasant radical sceptical antiquarian of his time, who turned Christian at last, explained in a footnote in his Table Book that cads were ‘low fellows, who hang about the college to provide the Etonians with anything necessary to assist their sports’. The big Oxford English Dictionary added, ‘So at Oxford, applied by collegians to town-lads of the same description, and contemptuously to townsmen generally.’

The volume of the OED with cad in it was published in 1893, and the dictionary did not change the entry for the second edition of 1989. The Oxford career of the word accounted for its connotation of non-gentlemanly behaviour.

I had read in Belloc’s The Cruise of the Nona (1915): ‘Of the cads and gentlemen I have met, I would give the cads a shade of odds in the matter of salvation.’ He defined cad as ‘a male deficient in one particular small set of those many moral qualities which, when combined with the national tradition of wealth, build up what is called in England a “gentleman”’. The ‘gentleman’ was Belloc’s real target. ‘I wonder what posterity will make of it?’ he asks of gentleman and cad. ‘Probably ... what we all do in dealing with the past, shrug its shoulders and pass on.’