(adjective): referring to sexual matters in an amusingly rude or irreverent way





This word is from Anglo-Norman and Old and Middle French forms such as ribalde, ribaut, ribauld, ribault, (Modern French ribaud), derived from the Old French verb riber, to give oneself up to pleasure. This verb is from Old High German rîban, meaning to be on heat, to mate, literally to rub, cognate with German reiben and Dutch wrijven, meaning to rub.

The primary meanings of French ribaud, feminine ribaude, are, as an adjective, villainous, debauched, and, as a noun, a villain, a debauchee.


In English, the word is first recorded in the second half of the 12th century as a surname, for instance in Radulfus filius Ribaud, Folco Ribald and Adam Ribaut.

The English noun ribald is first attested, in the sense of a person of low social status, especially regarded as worthless or good-for-nothing, in Þe Wohunge of Ure Lauerd (The Wooing of Our Lord), a homily dating back to the mid-13th century:

I for þe luue of þe þolede schome and bismere and schomeliche spateling of unwurði ribauz.
I for the love of you endured shame and scorn and shameful spitting of unworthy ribalds.

It is used in the same sense in the following passage from an early-14th-century satire on the numerous retinues of the nobles and rich people, whose idle attendants and servants preyed upon the produce of the industrious peasantry:

Of ribaudz y ryme
Ant rede o mi rolle,
Of gedelynges, gromes,
Of Colyn ant of Colle,
Harlotes, hors-knaves,
Bi pate ant by polle ;
To devel ich hem to-lvyre
Ant take to tolle !
Of ribalds I rhyme
And read in my roll,
Of gadlings [= low fellows], grooms,
Of Colin and of Colle,
Harlots [= scoundrels], horse-knaves [= horse-boys],
By pate and by poll;
To the devil I them deliver
And take to toll!

As in French, the noun ribald was also applied to a wicked or dissolute person. The Customs of London, by the English merchant and antiquary Richard Arnold (died circa 1521), contains The Othe [= oath] of the Bedel [= beadle] of the Warde and of the Cunstables and Sherefs Sergeatis and Francpledge and the Othe of yͤ Skauegers [= the scavengers] in euery Warde, which thus begins:

Ye shal swere that ye shal well and honestly kepe the warde that ye be bedil in. Ye shal suffer noo maner rybaudis nor none of euyll lyuing [= evil living] nor huxster [= huckster] of ale nor noo men holdynge brothles [= brothels] nor none other noyous od’ women slaundred [= slandered] of euyll name and of euyll lyf [= life] dwellyng wythin the warde.

It particularly designated a promiscuous woman, as in this text written around 1475:

A yong man a rewler, recheles ;
A olde man a lechowr, loweles ;
A pore man a waster, haveles ;
A riche man a thefe, nedeles ;
A womman a rebawde, shameles.
Thes v. shalle never thrif blameles.
A young man a ruler, reckless;
An old man a lecher, lowe-less [= without flame];
A poor man a waster, have-less [= destitute];
A rich man a thief, needless;
A woman a ribald, shameless.
These five shall never thrive blameless.

A ribald was in particular a foul-mouthed or blasphemous person. On Christmas Day 1421, the jurors of Aldersgate, London, brought the following charges against John Scarle, the pastor of St Leonard, Foster Lane:

Item that same enquest enditit [= indicted] Sir John Scarle, parson of seint Leonard in Fasterlane, for a commyn putour [= fornicator] of his owne parischens alle wey duryng, and a baratour [= brawler], and a scolde [= abusive man], and a perilous rebaude of his tunge, and a discurer [= betrayer] of confession of the which women that wole [= will] not asent to his lecherie, the which is a gret dissese to all the parissh.

As an adjective, ribald is first recorded in the early 16th century. For example, in Howe the parentes shall teache and governe theyre children after the Gospell, from The summe of the holye scripture and ordinarye of the Christen teachyng (1529), the religious controversialist Simon Fish (died 1531) gave the following advice:

When thou herest thy child swere, curse, strive, fight, lye or speke eny foule wordes or sing eny rybaud songes thou shalt reprove him sharply.


Like French ribaud, the noun ribald also denoted one of a band of irregular foot soldiers employed to ravage the countryside in advance of the army. Merlin : or, the early history of King Arthur, written around 1450, contains the following:

The saisnes were spredde a-brode thourgh the londe of kynge Ydiers, and hadde it all brente and robbed [...], and thei were moo than lxᴹˡ of horsemen and xᴹˡ ribaudes, that sette fier all a-boute the contrei.
The Saxons were spread abroad through the land of King Ydiers, and had it all burnt and robbed, [...] and they were more than 60,000 horsemen and 10,000 ribalds that set fire all about the country.

The noun ribald was also used for a kind of cannon. The anonymous author of a poem written at the time of the siege of English-held Calais in 1436 described the weapons brought by the assailant, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy:

With gonnes [= guns] grete and ordinance,
That theyme [= them] myght helpe and avance,
With many a proude pavis [= movable bulwark];
Gailly paynted and stuffed wele,
Ribawdes armed with Iren and stele [= iron and steel],
Was neuer better devyse.

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