The word henchman (Germanic irregular plural: henchmen) referred originally to one who attended on a horse, that is, a horse groom. Hence, like constable and marshal, also originally stable staff, henchman became the title of a (subordinate) official in a royal court or noble household. It is now used primarily to describe a stock character in many adventure stories: the villain's lackey.
EtymologyThe first part of the word, which is recorded in English since 1360, comes from the Old English hengest, meaning "horse", notably stallion, cognates of which also occur in many Teutonic languages, such as Old Frisian, German and Dutch hengst. The word appears in the name of Hengest, the Saxon chieftain, and still survives in English in placenames and other names beginning with Hingst- or Hinx-. It was often rendered as Henxman in medieval English.
Young henchmen, in act pages of honour or squires, rode or walked at the side of their master in processions and the like, and appear in the English royal household from the 14th century until Tudor Queen Elizabeth I abolished the royal henchmen, known also as the children of honour.
The word became obsolete for grooms in English from the middle of the 17th century, but was retained in Scots as "personal attendant of a Highland chief".
It seems to have been revived in English through the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who took the word and its derivation, according to the New English Dictionary, from Edward Burt's Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland, together with its erroneous derivation from haunch. The word is, in this sense, synonymous with gillie, the faithful personal follower of a Highland chieftain, the man who stands at his master's haunch, ready for any emergency. The modern sense of "obedient or unscrupulous follower" is first recorded 1839, probably based on a misunderstanding of the word as used by Scott, and is often used to describe an out-and-out adherent or partisan, ready to do anything.
In popular cultureHenchmen (occasionally henchlings) are common in mystery, fantasy, adventure comic books, and adventure novels and movies. They are the expendable adherents of the main villain, always ready to do the master's bidding, to kill or be killed, kidnap, or threaten, as needed. Often, they are killed by the hero before the master villain is reached, by the hero's sidekick in a dramatic battle, or even by the master villain as punishment for failure to comply with orders.
Henchmen are often abused and insulted by the villain for their incompetence, or for his pleasure; indeed, some abused henchmen take revenge after the villain's final defeat at the hero's hands, so that the henchman rather than the hero actually kills the villain.. Henchmen in this sense are also sometimes called lackeys or mooks.
A henchman might also be the non-player character follower of a player character in role-playing games. This henchman will follow the player around and assist in various manners.
In fiction, such heroic supporting characters are normally portrayed in a more positive light, tied to the hero by bonds of friendship and loyalty and are usually called sidekicks; the villain's supporters are called henchmen due to their evil nature, which makes such personal bonds difficult to establish. However, some darkly comedic heroes have sidekicks of a more subservient nature; though these relationships are often a form of "tough love" or even just a condescending affection, the henchman is in this case usually known as a minion.
Modern examplesThe phrase henchman is also used as a pejorative for any sort of political underling or to present others as such. Thus it was is used for associates of President George W. Bush, e.g. by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Likewise, it was also used against associates of the former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Members of the SS, or any of Adolf Hitler's staff, are often called "Hitler's Henchmen", a phrase used as the title of a book by Guido Knopp and a television documentary.
henchman in German: Scherge
henchman in Polish: Henchman
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