NONE of the newspapers I read last week actually called Ronnie Knight, back in Britain to face charges of large-scale theft, a villain - though one of them did mention 'villains still in the Costa del Sol' and a second, more ambiguously, wrote of 'fellow fugitives and retired villains' who had known him there. Was the word thought to be a bit premature, since he has not yet been tried?
Editors need not have worried, the word being so pleasingly vague. In its early days it could mean the same as villein, a bonded serf; bad luck, no doubt, but there was no blame in it. At the same time a villain (the spelling might go one way or the other) was a low, base-minded fellow, up to no good. It's sometimes hard to say from the context which the writers meant: were they just thinking about peasants, or about bad lots? They may not have bothered about the distinction. Low-born and low came to the same thing. Classism had not been invented. Peasant itself was in the same category ('Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I,' said the well-heeled Hamlet).
Villeins and villains, by the way, were so called because they worked for a villa, or estate; this was long before villas (like mansions, as in West Parade Mansions) had become suburbanised or genteelised, snobbery being one of the prime agents of linguistic change.
could, and can, be used facetiously, which criminal can't. s twirl ridiculous moustaches and slap their wicked thighs with whips in popular melodrama, where they can also show a sentimental side, cherishing their mothers and being gentle with animals and children. Mr Knight himself filled the part to perfection when he claimed that he really came home to see 'my dear old mum'. I am reminded of the 1971 film , starring Richard Burton and Donald Sinden. It is described in Halliwell's as a 'low-life shocker' telling of 'the comeuppance . . . of an East End gang boss with a mother fixation'. Only fiction, of course.