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Definition: A hag. A scolding old woman.

Pronunciation: Ha-ra-dn

Origin: Harridan first appears in the late 17th century. Originally an English slang word.

Why this word?

In 1698, A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of gypsies, beggars, thieves, cheats, &c. with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c.  was published in London. It was essentially the first dictionary of ‘slang’ and, with over 4,000 entries, it was the ‘standard’ such work for almost a century.

However, unlike ‘standard’ dictionaries that seek to give the meaning and origin of a word, the origins are less obvious in slang dictionaries and rely more heavily on speculation.

Harridan is one such word. It is speculated that it perhaps came from the French word  Harridelle, referring to a worn-out, thin horse – but that seems more than a little shaky.

Rather colorfully, the ‘Canting Crew’ dictionary defined Harridan as ‘one that is half Whore, half Bawd’. Charming.

How to use this word in a sentence?

This is a difficult one. A lot of slang words have a temporal nature. The word or its slang word exists only for a very short, very specific time. One wonders if Harridan is one such word – destined for a short life-span – but just happened to be around when the ‘Canting Crew’ dictionary was collected. Whether you want to use it is up to you – but the next time you find yourself in a situation where you are searching for a nasty word to describe a bawdy, evil, haggard old woman – I suspect that you may have bigger problems than lexographic choice.


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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