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IT WAS Peter Baring, chairman of Barings Bank, who first described Nick ("Lucky") Leeson as a rogue trader, and he was using the word rogue in its special sense of someone apart from the herd. There was no suggestion, heaven forbid, that any of the other elephants behaved like that.

Some commentators seem to have put a different complexion on the word, thinking of the more usual dictionary definition ("a dishonest or unprincipled person"). But that wasn't its first meaning either. A 16th-century rogue was a vagabond, no more - a person of no fixed abode. The Shorter Oxford suggests it may have come from rogare, the Latin for beg. And of course there were honest beggars. But the Elizabethans took the same view of rogues as many people do of New Age travellers. They were obviously up to no good, and it wasn't long before a rogue meant any bad hat. (Its application to errant elephants, as well as to non-conforming seedlings and so on, is from the 19th century.)

Similarly, there used to be nothing wrong in calling someone a knave. It merely meant a young boy. Then it meant a servant, and then, later, a rascal. Villains, too, were once blameless, as were churls, who started by being men, then became poor freemen, then serfs, then no-goods. It all shows how deep was the contempt in which the upper classes used to hold the lower.

We haven't heard much of knaves since they were formalised and put on playing cards; rogues, now more or less classless, are still with us. But it's not much of a word for real depravity. It was already being used as a sardonic term of affection in the 17th century, much as some now use bastard. And though roguish has for ages had two meanings, it makes us think of coquettes or wags, rather than villains.

Nicholas Bagnall