Q&A: The origin of ‘vandalism’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, vandal with care…

Q: Hi AWC, where does vandalism come from?

A: Well, that’s complex. It could be a troubled home life. It could be a desire to be seen. Perhaps a cry for help, or just a violent tendency? Maybe simply a sale on spray paint and crowbars?

Q: Umm, thanks for that. But I meant the word “vandalism” – where does it come from?

A: Ooooh.

Q: Yeah.

A: Well, Macquarie Dictionary defines “vandalism” as “wanton or malicious destruction or damage of property.”

Q: Wanton destruction? How terrible! But they’re so tasty?

A: No, not “wontons” – a type of Chinese dumpling. “Wanton” – as in “deliberate or reckless”. It comes from the Middle English word “wan-towen”, as in being resistant to control. It’s where we get “wanting” from too – like when someone is “left wanting” – to be lacking or deficient in something.

Q: I’m dumpling deficient, that’s for sure.

A: We can eat later. Words now. And the people who commit vandalism are known as?

Q: Thugs?

A: Well sure, but what specifically?

Q: Wanton thugs?

A: No. They’re “vandals”!

Q: Ahh, I see where you were going now. Right. So, what’s the deal with “vandals”? 

A: The word entered English in the 1500s, but had its origins much earlier – named for the Germanic tribe known as Vandals, who famously sacked Rome in 455 – marking the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire.

Q: So the Vandals just called themselves that because it was cool, like the T-Birds or Pink Ladies?

A: No, this is Ancient Rome, not “Greece” the musical.

Q: Ha ha ha. 

A: Seriously though, yeah, it was the name this tribe had given themselves – perhaps taken from the Old English “Wendlas” meaning wanderers.

Q: They certainly liked to “Rome” hahaaaaa.

A: Curiously though, while known as one of the many “sackings of Rome” throughout its troubled history, the Vandals reportedly did very little damage – more of a political protest than anything.

Q: Not even one department store looting?

A: It was fairly well-behaved, in sacking terms. Apparently the Pope of the time implored them to go easy on the murders and fires, and just focus on the pillaging. So yes, they did steal a few 5th-century equivalents of flat-screen TVs.

Q: Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was cleaned out quick…

A: It’s also important to note that the Vandals did do a lot of pirate-like things in the Mediterranean and eventually took hold in Sicily and North Africa for a short time, wreaking havoc on Catholic Christians along the way.

Q: So why come up with the name “vandal” some 1100 years later if it wasn’t objectively destructive?

A: Well, according to the Britannica, it seems the Catholic Christian word-makers of the day still held a grudge about how they had been treated by the Vandal king known as Gaiseric and his son. So, when the task was given to them for a word to describe what Merriam-Webster defines as “one who willfully or ignorantly destroys, damages, or defaces property belonging to another or to the public”, they cashed in their festering grudge.

Q: Meowwwww. Etymology cat fight!

A: Don’t get us wrong – the Vandals did do a lot of destruction, but in the grand scheme of things, they were a tiny blip in history and may have been lost to time had it not been for this long-held grudge. Ironic really, as they’re more known now because of the words they were named after.

Q: What a curious backstory. Can we go and have wontons now?

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