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Etymology: Virago - The Bold & The Battleaxe

Virago is a deliciously potent word. Beautifully sharp and seeped in meaning, it’s etymology reveals how women’s history has been shaped and skewed by language. But where did the virago come from, and why is it no longer part of our common tongue?

Pallas Athene by Gustav Klimt | The Dilettante
Pallas Athene, by Gustav Klimt, 1898. The Greek goddess of widsom and war is argued to contain a paradox of male and female characteristics.

Originating in the 14th century, Virago is derived from the Latin Vir meaning hero or male, and the suffix -ago, which suggests an association or resemblance - a Virago was once a woman of stature, valour and character. Great warrior queens such as Boudicca or Athena the Greek goddess of war and wisdom are examples of these early viragoes. However, intense gender inequality of these times meant characteristics such as strength or heroism were almost entirely ascribed as masculine, with the notion of a woman attaining such qualities almost completely unheard of. And by consequence, over the centuries the Virago’s reputation tarnished, its meaning changed shape, and to be called a Virago became something entirely different.

There is an unquestionable subtext of power struggle in the etymology of virago. Within the formation of the word itself, it is declared that female heroic power is only describable when likening it to the naturally accepted male characteristic. Once in existence however, the virago identity had the potential to become a female archetype in the public consciousness, and a for new realm of possibility to open up for women.

The first to rattle the cages of a gender prescribed lifestyle, it gives pleasure to imagine these Virago women one by one finding a suppressed potential, a bravery to reject the expectations of proper, pure, pink submissiveness, and fighting to develop their potential outside of convention. (Probably whilst pissed off and on their period). Doubtless to say, to warrant such a label a woman must have exclaimed herself in some bold and impressive action, one that rivalled her male counterparts and demanded respect.

Illustraition of a Harpy | The Dilettante
A harpy in Ulisse Aldrovandi's Monstrorum Historia, Bologna, 1642

Over time, in an almost Orwellian turn of events, this power that the Virago had garnered was wrenched away. Its meaning became distorted to signify a coarse and unpleasant harridan-like character and the courageous virago was locked away in the same cell as nitpicking shrews, cantankerous battleaxes, and troublemaking harpies.

With this shift into a contronym (a word with two meanings that are opposites), the role of the heroine within the Virago lost its way a while throughout history, but still many women rebelled against gender constraints in their own brilliantly disobedient ways. Many not only took on male attributes but also masculine identities in order to take advantage of the same power and rights as men.

Mary ’Moll Cutpurse‘ Frith, a 17th century London pickpocket, is a particularly vivacious example of a virago, but as brave or boisterous is open to question. Known as ‘The Roaring Girl‘, she gained notoriety by outlandish behaviour and dress. Clothed in baggy breeches and a doublet jacket (the popular male attire of the time), she would be seen smoking a pipe and performing profane banter in taverns. She became a pimp, providing for both men and middle-class women, and was said to often convince male clients who had fathered a child to contribute financially to their children’s life.

She was arrested several times for both petty theft and indecent dress and in her later years was admitted into Bedlam Hospital where she was eventually ‘cured’ of insanity. Throughout Mary’s life two plays were written about her; John Day’s The Madde Pranckes of the Mery Mall of Bankside and The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, both focusing on her obscene behaviour and portraying her in a negative light. Despite her gallivanting ways, Mary lived to the grand age of seventy five, dying of dropsy in Fleet Street London, and leaving a great myriad of myth and mischievous tales. The irony of Mary’s story is that there will have been countless men going about similar lives without so much as an eyebrow lifted, never mind such infamy.

Marlene Dietrich | The Dilettante
Actress and irrefutable virago Marlene Dietrich in Paris, 1932. At the time French authorities were threatening to arrest Marlene for presenting herself publicly in men's clothes.

Language is omnipresent but can act in subtle means. Subconsciously our world is shaped; by the words we use, by names that can either empower or attack, and by role models who provide inspiration and hope. They say it is hard to be what you cannot see, and that is the reason these peculiarly intrepid Virago women of yonder day are a cause for fascination. Without the concept of a strong, heroic woman being a positive force in the public consciousness, viragos were impressively audacious for daring to live as they did.

The twentieth century saw a huge shift in women’s rights. The feminist conversation began with the direct action of the suffragettes, spurred on by the Marlene Dietrichs and Joan Jetts of their day, and was topped off with the Spice Girls’ sugar-coated adage of GIRL POWER! by the end of the nineties. (Please, dear reader, forgive our highly simplistic explanation of a century’s worth of hugely important and intricate feminist work). But in recent years feminism has become a popular, if polarising, topic. It is easy to find countless examples of female heroism, power and strength, yet the scales of equality are still distinctly unbalanced on many counts, and terms such have feminazi have much the same effect as virago once did.

Should we let words such as virago fall into history and stop applying gender to our accolades of praise? We think not. Instead, let’s honour these ladies of the past who defiantly gave the finger to being just a girl and celebrate a word full of vivacity and strength. Perhaps there is a third chapter for the meaning of the virago, and we can help garner back the power and respect it once held.


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