I used the word arch the other day—not in the usual sense of a curve, but in the sense of jocular, waggishly clever—and immediately got to wondering where that word came from.

The origin of the usual meaning of a curve or a curved structure is straightforward enough. It’s from the Latin arcus via the Old French arche and appears in English circa 1300. An early appearance is from “St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” found in the South English Legendary, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 108, Part 1:

With pilers and with qvoynte Arches, ase þis Monekene cloistre is.
(With pillars and with quaint arches, as this monk’s cloister is.)

But the prefix arch-, as in archbishop, and the adjective arch, come from a different root. They’re from the Greek prefix άρχ-, meaning chief or primary. In Old English, this prefix was originally translated as heah-, or high as in heah-biscop, or high-bishop, but in the later Old English period the borrowed forms arce-, ærce-, and erce- also came into use.

Use of arch as a standalone adjective meaning chief or pre-eminent begins in the late sixteenth century and is from the prefix. An early use can be found in the 1574 The Life Off the 70. Archbishopp off Canterbury Presentlye Sittinge Englished:

The fauour off any thoughe neuer so arch a Prelate.

And we can find an inflected form in William Prynne’s 1649 pamphlet, A Legall Vindication of the Liberties of England:

And proclaim them the Archest Impostors under Heaven.

But also in the seventeenth century, we started seeing the prefix arch- being attached to words of negative connotation, such as arch-rogue and arch-scoundrel. And from that came the sense of clever, cunning, roguish. An early example can be found in John Bunyan’s 1684 The Pilgrim’s Progress (2.147):

GREAT-HEART. Above all that Christian met with after he had passed through Vanity Fair, one By-ends was the arch one.
HONEST. By-ends! what was he?
GREAT-HEART. A very arch fellow—a downright deceiver; one that would be religious, which way soever the world went; but so cunning that he would be sure never to lose or suffer for it.

Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001–14, s. v. arch(e (n.).

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. arch, n.1; arch-, prefix; arch, adj. and n.2.

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