stravaig: (verb) to wander aimlessly; (noun) an instance of such wandering

Striking For The Back Country (Kemble, 1885)
Huckleberry Finn” illustration by E.W. Kemble (1885)

Not all who wander are lost

J.R.R. TolkienThe Riddle Of Strider” (1954)

This Scots word has been on my “to do” list for a while, linking back as it does to my recent post about useful Scottish words, and farther back to my discussion of the transformed usage of the word gangrel in Scottish hill-walking circles.

Like gangrel, the use of stravaig, as a noun or verb, has become a little distorted among hill-walkers—the defining aimlessness of the original usage seems to have faded into the background, and it’s often used now to indicate long-distance, multi-day or particularly energetic walks. But here at The Oikofuge I’m constitutionally disposed to adhere to the original meaning. Long-time readers of my various Sidlaws adventures will appreciate that they are stravaigs in the true sense, undertaken with little objective in mind except getting home in one piece and in time for tea. Someone who wanders in this way is a stravaiger.

For all its appearance of coming from the Gaelic, the word is actually Latin in origin—an aphetic and apocopic trimming of the word extravagate, “to wander at large”, which is formed from the Latin prefix extra- “outside” and the verb vagari, “to wander”.

To call something extravagant originally indicated that it was wandering beyond normal bounds. Only in the eighteenth century did the word transform into an adjective for things that were overly expensive or wasteful. Shakespeare used it in its original sense when he had Horatio say:

Awake the god of day, and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th’ extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine

Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 1

By which he meant: “The rising sun drives wandering ghosts back into hiding.” (And notice that Shakespeare was using erring in its old sense of “wandering”, too—a usage we’d now replace with errant.)

On a related note, the Italians used estravaganza to designate things that had strayed outside the normal—oddity or eccentricity, in other words. English adopted the word to describe musical or literary works that were bombastically over-the-top in composition—but we revised the prefix to a more familiar form, creating the word extravaganza.

The prefix extra- is responsible for a large number of English words, all indicating a state of being outside something—so for instance we have extramural (“outside walls”), extracurricular (“outside the set work”), extraordinary (“outside the ordinary”) and any number of medical words describing anatomical relationships. Extraordinary originally meant “beyond the usual quantity”. It became contracted to extra, which retains that original meaning, while extraordinary evolved to its current meaning, designating something remarkable, aberrant or strange.

Latin vagari is at the root of a range of English words, some common, some disused and some obscure. If you are vagant, you are wandering, and an instance of such wandering is vagation (disappointingly unrelated to vacation). The corresponding verb is to vagitate. To divagate is to wander from one place to another, to pervagate is to wander through, and evagation is the act of wandering off. A vagary was originally a sort of roaming tour, but it came to be used metaphorically for rambling speech or writing, from which it evolved to take on its current meaning, designating eccentric conduct or strange tricks of fate.

Our word astray comes from Old French estraier, “to wander”, a heavily condensed descendant of Latin extravagari. Shortened further in English, it turned into stray. A stray animal is legally designated an estray.

With the suffix -bundus, the verb vagari forms the adjective vagabundus, “wandering about”, from which we derive our word vagabond. But, despite appearances, vagrant proves to be unrelated—it came into English from Old French wacrant, which in turn derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root as our word walk.

A shorter adjective related to vagari was vagus, “wandering”. It gives us the name of the vagus nerve, which wanders widely on its course through the body, and our word vague, for things that are poorly defined.

Finally, I offer a little crop of -vagant words that deserved to be resuscitated from their current obscurity. Someone or something that roams at night is noctivagant; something floating around in the sea is fluctivagant; someone who wanders alone is solivagant. And, coming back to topics dear to the Oikofuge’s heart, someone who roams the mountains is montivagant and someone who roams the world is mundivagant.

2 thoughts on “Stravaig”

  1. stravaigiI can’t find a Like button, which I would certainly have pressed had I found it (after circumvagating this blog post).

    This is absolutely the sort of essay I very much enjoy. Thank you from the bottom of my extravagant heart, which had started to ask “what about ‘vagrant’?” and was amply satisfied by your etymological digging on behalf of vagrancy.

    I have enjoyed similar disambiguating with ‘abscess’, which isn’t closely related to ‘abscission’.

    And as for stravaiging … thanks for the reminder about Tolkein’s Strider … time for a re-read of LotR I ken.

  2. Pleased you enjoyed it. There’s a “like” button in the discreet form of a little thumbs-up symbol, just below the big “subscribe” buttons and above the row of “share” buttons.
    I’m glad to have put you in mind of Lord of the Rings.

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