Varlet n. Low, menial scoundrel. One of a number of words of medieval origin, all indicative of unsavory status. Presumably the relatively large number of such words in existence is a reflection of the relatively high incidence of unsavoriness during the Middle Ages. Others that spring to mind are lackey (obsequious and servile hanger-on); knave (low-class rogue); and caitiff (base, despicable person). Note that knaves are always scurvy, i.e., thoroughly nasty, as is the appearance of one suffering from scurvy, one of the symptoms of which is scurf, or flaking skin, one of the instances of which is dandruff. Scurvy is a good descriptive for varlets, too, but not for lackeys. Vassals are also lowly creatures, but not as necessarily disreputable as varlets, lackeys, knaves, and caitiffs.
Each Tuesday, we’ll offer up a Superior Word for the edification of our Superior Readers, via the volumes of the inimitable Peter Bowler. You can purchase all or any of the four Superior Person’s Books of Words from the Godine website. Varlet appears in the Third.