Churl is a word that isn’t used much anymore, although you will see the adjective churlish from time to time in modern use. It has a rather straightforward etymology and it’s primarily interesting for its usage in the Old English period, when it was a synonym for man.
The Old English form was ceorl and it was used to mean a male human and was particularly used to mean husband. It appears in the Corpus Glossary from the period prior to 800. A translation of the gospel of John (4:17-18) from c.1000 has this:
Wel þu cwæde þæt þu næfst ceorl, witodlice þu hæfst fif ceorlas
(Well you said that you had no churl, certainly you have five churls.)
The noun was also used as a verb, meaning to take a husband. From Anglo-Saxon Laws compiled by Benjamin Thorpe and written sometime before 1000:
Ðær man eft wifaþ oððe wif eft ceorlaþ.
(When a man then wives, or a woman then churls)
Also by about 1000, churl had taken on the meaning of a freeman with no rank. Again from Thorpe’s Anglo-Saxon Laws:
Swa we eac settaþ be eallum hadum, ge ceorle ge eorle.
(As we also appoint to all ranks, you churl, you earl.)
And this sense produced the adjective, originally meaning pertaining to someone of no rank, pertaining to a commoner. Again from Thorpe:
Gif cierlisc mon betygen wære.
(If a churlish man were accused)
By the beginning of the 14th century, this sense of churl meaning a commoner had developed into the modern sense of a rude or boorish person, one with manners fitting the unwashed masses. From The Lay of Havelok the Dane, c.1300:
Go hom swiþe, fule drit, cherl; Go heþen.
(Go home swiftly, foul dirt-churl; go away.)
And from the c.1340 poem Cursor Mundi:
Wiþ scorne alle him vnswerde And seide whi is þis cherle ferde.
(With scorn all answered him and said why is this churl afraid.)
And a little later we see the adjective churlish appear. From Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale:
That fro his lust yet were hym levere abyde
Than doon so heigh a cherlyssh wrecchednesse.
(He would rather forgo his desire
Than do so evil a churlish wretchedness.)
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton