The Superantihero

People who know me principally through Common Errors in English Usage are often surprised to hear that I was not a teacher of writing or grammar, but a teacher of mostly foreign literature.

When I taught Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground I found that many students had trouble getting past its the narrator, who begins his tale by saying “I’m a sick man . . . a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me.”

The “Underground Man” is a classic antihero. You’re not supposed to like him (though over the years several students told me they identified with him). Dostoyevsky’s creation is a classic self-hater, a brilliant, bitter, trapped character.

For further discussion of this fascinating story, see my “Study Guide for Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground.”

I had him in mind when I wrote the entry on “antihero” (p. 18). In that entry I also mention that “antihero” is not a synonym for “villain.” In the Middle Ages a “villain” (from French villein) was simply a person of low social standing, a peasant. Medieval villains normally couldn’t read or write, so it’s not surprising that those who were literate looked down on them, and that the word came to be associated with depravity or criminality.

Similarly a “knave” was originally simply a boy, then a boy servant, then any male servant, and then a wicked person. In cards the lowest-value face card—the Jack—is also known as the Knave because he lacks the nobility of a King or Queen.

This sort of verbal snobbery is also reflected the word “slavish” (servile—like a slave).

A similar term is “scullion,” literally the lowest-ranking kind of servant who was assigned the most menial chores in the kitchen. The word was also used as an insult. Now it doesn’t mean much of anything.

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