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shameless pleading

Rogue

The foam-flecked grill is a nice touch.

Dear Word Detective:  Driving along the freeway the other day I found myself behind a Nissan — not a Nissan Murano, nor a Nissan Versa (both of which I think of as nonsense names), but a Nissan Rogue. Well, I thought, with so many models these car companies are hard-pressed to come up with names. But I always thought “rogue” implied some sort of dangerous viciousness, as in a “rogue elephant.” Are we now to think it’s simply a synonym for rebel, or something even tamer? My dictionary says the origin of “rogue” is unknown. Any idea where it came from, and where it’s going? — Barney Johnson.

Nissan Rogue, eh? Awesome. Did the owner spring for the titanium tusks? Or did the car  just glower, as the current line of Dodge Ram trucks do, with massive menacing grillwork that would bring a song to Mussolini’s heart? Every time I get on the road I’m struck by the fact that choice of cars and driving style have apparently become the primary channels of self-expression for a lot of weirdly angry people. While most people don’t pick a car because of its name, motor vehicle monikers such as “Viper,” “Cutlass,” “Rampage” and “Vanquish” no doubt appeal on a subliminal level to the chronically aggrieved among us. Maybe we should encourage, in the spirit of moderation, car names that invoke that other American obsession, food. In a chapter on automotive names in his book “What’s in a Name?” (Merriam-Webster, 1996), Paul Dickson mentions a car manufactured between 1902 and 1906 called “the American Chocolate” (because it was made in a former candy factory). I know I’d feel a lot safer on the highway if I were surrounded by people driving Dodge Muffins, Toyota Tacos and Chevy Calzones.

The Nissan Rogue is a compact “crossover” SUV that was first marketed in the US in 2008, which, I guess, rules out the intriguing possibility that its name was inspired by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s 2009 memoir “Going Rogue.” I suppose she picked that title to evoke the image of an elephant (i.e., Republican) “going it alone,” but the Oxford English Dictionary defines “to go rogue” as “to behave erratically or dangerously, go out of control.” George Orwell, as I recall, wrote an interesting essay about a rogue elephant. In any case, one’s mileage may vary as to the political wisdom of that image, but it’s a scary name for a car.

“Rogue” first appeared in English in the late 16th century meaning “idle vagrant; vagabond,” as well as “a dishonest person; a scoundrel.” Almost immediately, however, “rogue” also came to mean “A mischievous person, especially a child; a person whose behavior one disapproves of but who is nonetheless likable or attractive” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), and the “lovable rogue,” the “bad boy” charmer of fiction and Hollywood movies, from Tom Jones to Clark Gable to George Clooney, was born. Most other uses of the term “rogue,” however, have been in the sense of either “renegade” in a negative sense (“rogue nation,” “rogue cop,” et al., even “rogue lawyer”) or “without control or discipline; behaving abnormally or dangerously; erratic, unpredictable” (OED) (“A housewife’s game of patience came to an abrupt end when a 20-ton ‘rogue’ mechanical shovel begun crunching its way through the walls of her semi-detached home,” 1979).

It has been suggested that “rogue” is rooted in the Middle French “rogue,” meaning “haughty or arrogant,” but that doesn’t strike most authorities as likely, in part because that meaning is nearly the opposite of “rogue’s” initial meaning in English of “vagabond; vagrant.” More likely is the theory that our “rogue” comes from the obsolete English thieves’ slang “roger” (pronounced with a hard “g”), which, with weird specificity, meant “An itinerant beggar pretending to be a poor scholar from Oxford or Cambridge” (OED). This “roger,” in turn, seems to have been ultimately rooted in the Latin “rogare,” meaning “to ask.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, I should note, finds this “rogare” theory unlikely, and suggests “roger” may simply come from the name of a person, and thus have no connection to “rogue.” But if “roger” from a person’s name meant “beggar,” which the OED says it did, it could still have changed form and become “rogue.”

Incidentally, although many people assume that unruly elephants are the source of “rogue,” the term “rogue elephant” didn’t appear until the 19th century. “Rogue elephant” has also been used in a figurative sense since the 1920s to mean “a person or agency whose activities are antisocial and destructive” (OED) (“Only the rogue elephants among the public utility monopolies have occasionally run amuck,” 1981).

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