Richard Armitage: Too stubborn?

[Unless otherwise noted the pictures in this post came from]

I embarked on the vocabulary series of posts after Richard Armitage’s remarks, in the publicity for Romeo & Juliet, about the struggle for words [after 6:53 below]. I admit it’s been a nice distraction from the other things on my mind and a reminder of the many things I love about Armitage’s work.

I’ve been asked a few time how I pick words. There’s not one way. Sometimes the posts reflect my mood when I’m making them, other times I have words in mind that I look for illustrations of, and sometimes I look at a picture and a word comes to mind. But thinking about words (and the taxonomy of words) has also given me another prism for thinking about Richard Armitage’s roles and the way he inhabits them. Some words are hard to find in Armitage’s oeuvre while others overwhelm the viewer with potential examples.

It can be hard to find a picture to illustrate some words that are near and dear to me. A word I love — kibitz, which came into English in the 1920s via Yiddish, which got it from German, Kiebitz  — doesn’t seem to show up in Armitage’s oeuvre as far as I remember. Although it depends a little on how one defines it. Some people define kibitzing as silently observing something (like watching a chess or card game — “Do you want to play this round?” “No, thanks, I’ll kibitz this time”), in which case we could definitely find an appropriate scene to illustrate the words with. Polish also appears to use the word kibic to mean something like “fan” or “spectator.” However, my own primary use of “kibitzing” is something like “backseat driving”: it means to observe something and offer an annoying, invasive commentary (this has to do with the original meaning in German, after a shrill-sounding bird).

The failure to illustrate certain concepts seems significant. For instance, here’s another favorite word of mine.

Richard Armitage as John Standring in episode 2 of Sparkhouse.

Oops, that’s not what it usually means.

wool-gathering: indulging in aimless thought, daydreaming. In use in English after 1553; here‘s an explanation that relates the mental activity to the action of searching for wool that’s adhered to bushes and so on. Richard Armitage, Comic Con 2012. Source was originally imdB.

But it’s hard to find pictures of Richard Armitage that look even slightly unfocused. Even when he’s not staring at the camera, or he seems to be internally preoccupied, aimlessness or daydreaming is not what seems to be at work.

Richard Armitage, book-signing after ComicCon 2015. He may actually be signing a book here. But in all of these bowed head pictures, he doesn’t look absent-minded or daydreamerish — even if he is.

I got onto this line of thinking after the dictionary exercises (because “wool-gathering” is such a beautiful word and I was sad about not being able to use it) and after writing the first article about tension, in which I also argue that Richard Armitage is hard to capture inhabiting the lower levels of the tension scale.

But just as there are word clusters in which we don’t find Armitage roles / scenes, there are others in which we do. For instance, it’s struck me lately that one of the easier notions to illustrate using pictures of Armitage is “stubborn.” So many of his characters can be represented in this way.

As I learned when I was fourteen and trying to develop my vocabulary for the PSAT, English has beautiful and descriptive words for stubbornness. Here are just a few: obstinate, headstrong, willful, unyielding, inflexible, unbending, intransigent, intractable, inexorable, persistent,  froward, contumacious, perverse, stiff-necked, pig-headed.

I loved this abundance of similar words, perhaps out of being a stubborn teenager. I can’t discuss these all individually. So many words, so little time. But where to start on this ramble?

Normally, I’d disqualify “pig-headed,” because this is not a real picture.

However, Richard Armitage did describe himself in 2014 as “stubborn as a pig.” Source.

Some of the words disqualify themselves despite their picturesque qualities. “Headstrong,” for instance, is mostly used to describe women and Disney princesses (google “headstrong” and look at the images).

Lucy Griffiths as Marian and Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne, at their ill-fated wedding in Robin Hood 1.12. “Headstrong” is an interesting word — it carries the connotation of persisting on a course of action because one considers only one’s own wishes and is oblivious to the needs of others. The word comes from the late 14th century, carried over from Old English. Despite the apparent folk etymology relating to horses, there is no evidence of a connection.

Men who have this streak of inconsiderate independence of mind are more likely to be described with a different word.

willful: intending to do as one pleases, regardless of consequences; in the case of a transgression, deliberate or intentional (willful destruction). From Middle English, same meaning. Richard Armitage as Paul Andrews in Between the Sheets.

Both “headstrong” and “willful” carry the connotations of ignorance and immaturity. A further synonym conveys the flavor of juvenile behavior, but nonetheless awareness, even gleefulness, in one’s refusal to change.

recalcitrant: holding an immature and uncooperative attitude toward authority. From Latin, recalcitrare, to kick out with the heels. Here, Monet (Richard Armitage) refuses to comply with the style of drawing he is supposed to be emulating, in episode 1 of The Impressionists.

“Recalcitrant” is most frequently used in English to describe teenagers, children, very old people, or others who cannot be expected to obey the reasonable dictates of authority.

A similar word in its meaning of resistance to or defiance of authority, “contumacious,” is now archaic and primarily refers to legal contexts, but includes the connotation of haughtiness or being above the law.

Contumacious: willfully disobedient to authority. From Latin contumax: haughty, insolent, obstinate. Richard Armitage as John Mulligan in Moving On, explaining why he’s just fine with his legal transgressions.

The word may be out of usage for hundreds of years, but we still have a Richard Armitage character that fits the bill. It’s amazing, how many ways Armitage finds to portray stubbornness.

Some stubbornness is primarily about words.

intransigent: refusing to compromise or come to agreement. Interesting etymology: While the words deep roots lie in Latin, it came originally from an 1870s Spanish designation for extreme left and right parties, los intransigentes, then entered French as a generalized uncompromising stance, and thence to English. Here, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is refusing to fulfill his agreement with Bard or give up any of his gold in order to forestall war, in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Source: Richard Armitage Central.


Naturally, the boundary between words and actions is sometimes a bit blurry, as with “inexorable,” which these days more often has the connotation of fate or inevitability.

inexorable: in a specific sense, not open to change after entreaty, begging, or request; in the broader sense, unable to be prevented. From Latin, inexorabilis, something not movable by entreaty. Ruth (Nicola Walker) can’t stop John Bateman (Richard Armitage) from drugging her in Spooks 9.8.


In comparison, many of the meanings of this word cluster move from attitudes or moods toward behaviors. Gary in Into the Storm is a good example of this. He has a rigid, native inflexibility of mind, probably related to his job as a school administrator, that translates to how he treats his sons and which affects their personal relationship negatively. We see a word that starts as a state of mind and gradually permeates behavior.

inflexible: unable to be bent; not willing to change or compromise. From Latin, flectere, to bend. Richard Armitage as Gary and Nathan Kress as his younger son in Into the Storm. Source: Richard Armitage Central.

His inability to bend is challenged as the film develops.

In the business we call this an antonym, lol. Hopefully the meaning is obvious. Richard Armitage as Gary hangs on for dear life as tornado winds blow through a highway tunnel at the end of Into the Storm. Damn, I don’t think I ever took a good look at his forearms here — it’s worth lightening these consistently dark screencaps. Source: Richard Armitage Central

Or here’s another illustration, using the English synonym.

bend: to shape or force something straight to a curve or triangle; to incline the body downward from the vertical. Unbending is the inability or refusal to do this. From Old English bendan, to place something under tension. Ian Macalwain (Richard Armitage) has the “great idea” of forcing his troop to play rugby, in Ultimate Force.

Another attractive antonym. That’s some bending there. Same scene as above.

More bending. According to Armitage himself, this is the result of receiving a “hospital pass.”

Many of the “stubborn” words, especially the more well-known ones, refer specifically to behavior: that of the person who is knowledgeable of the will of others, but refuses to comply with it.

Persistence, for instance, a term Americans now associate, for better or for worse, with Mitch McConnell and Elizabeth Warren: “nevertheless, she persisted.” If you know this story, you’re aware that persistence is associated with an an open-ended, continuous quality (“a persistent cough”), or a continuity or repetitiveness that can also be viewed positively. People who persist may achieve their goals — so the connotation here is often positive, Mitch McConnell notwithstanding.

persistent: continuing in a course of action despite difficulty or opposition; enduring over a long period. From Latin, persistere, to abide or continue steadfastly, from sistere, to come to stand still. Mr. Thornton persisted in his attentions to Margaret’s family despite her rejection of his suit. Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton and Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret in episode 3 of North & South.

We’ll come back to “persistent” — I put it here because it is often confused with “obstinate.” Like “persistent,” “obstinate” is associated with people who continue a behavior or attitude despite awareness that others do not agree, but it is always negatively connoted.

obstinate: refusing to change one’s course despite attempts to persuade one to do so; of a problem or situation, very difficult to overcome. From Latin, obstinare, to stand against (note similarity to obsession, from Latin obsedere, to sit against). When Guy continues bringing Marian gifts despite her regular communication of lack of interest in his approaches (and he justifies this via advice from his mother), he’s being obstinate. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.5.

We might qualify the difference between persistence and obstinacy as the difference between insistence on continuing and refusing to let go.

“Stubborn” is usually considered an escalated version of “obstinate,” due to its connotation of intentional obstruction. The stubborn person does not simply refuse to respond to persuasion; rather, he acts in ways that irrationally obstruct others’, or sometimes his own, goals.

stubborn: showing a refusal to change one’s attitude on a subject despite having good reasons to do so. Appears suddenly in Middle English with no derivation and is unrelated to “stub.” When Guy burns down Marian’s father’s house, it doesn’t improve his case with her; he persists on his course and it makes things worse. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 2.1.

On the other hand, the origins of the word “stubborn” are unknown, and its position as a stronger version of obstinacy may also have to do with the general perception that Latin origin words are more elegant than those of German origin. Latinate language hides uncomfortable judgements; we see it is evasive, in comparison to Germanic origin words, which are often seen as cruder, more direct or more forceful, as George Orwell suggested in “Politics and the English Language.”

At the end of this scale, we find utter oppositionality.

perverse: behaving in a way that is deliberately contrary to the expected standard of right or good, disregarding the consequences; contrary to accepted practice. From Latin, perversus, turned around. Guy’s murder of Marion is perverse in that it is contrary not only to law and morals, but also to his own romantic feelings. Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne and Lucy Griffiths as Marian in Robin Hood 2.12.

A caution: be careful of interchanging “perverse” with “perverted,” as they come from the same derivation and may be equivalent, but not necessarily in every context. Perverse shades toward “contrary,” whereas perverted moves toward “corrupt.” (“Perverse patriotism” would be an patriotism maintained against common sense, for instance, where as “perverted patriotism” would be a distorted or corrupted version of such sentiment.) Additionally, in English, “perverted” most often refers to the manifestations of abnormal sexuality.

Given the word’s oppositional directionality, perversus was often rendered in Old English Psalm translations as “froward,” a preposition that is extinct today, but meant the opposite direction of “toward”  (we still use the expression “to and fro,” meaning “forward and backward, toward and away from, here and there.”

froward: contrary, difficult to deal with. From Old English fraward, leading away from. When Porter encounters Section 20, he is impossible to control. Richard Armitage as John Porter and Jodhi May as Layla Thompson in Strike Back 1.1.

We very rarely hear the word “froward” nowadays, but because of the moral connotation of turning away, the word is connoted with unmanageability. As Collins (Andrew Lincoln) tells his CIA counterpart as played by Toby Stephens in the final episode of Strike Back, this unwillingness to be controlled by others is Porter’s great strength in any military situation.

It also yields another synonym:

intractable: difficult or impossible to address or deal with. From Latin intractabilis, not to be handled, unmanageable. Original usage in early modern England connoted with “stormy.” Richard Armitage as John Porter in Strike Back 1.1.


So far, with the exception of “persistent,” we’ve mostly talked about stubbornness as “active refusal.” There are various shadings to this refusal, my favorite of which came into English via the second wave of English Bible translation, associated with Thomas Tyndale. I ran across it when I was six and reading the Pentateuch for the first time — despite growing up around cows, I had to ask my mom what it meant. It’s about the translation of the Hebrew expression קְשֵׁה־עֹ֖רֶף, a descriptor that G-d frequently used for the Israelites. The term literally means “hard of neck,” and refers to a situation in which a plowman pricked the neck of an ox, in order to get it to turn. An ox that is “hard of neck” does not pay heed to the message from the goad, or is hard to control. Metaphorically, when G-d calls the Israelites stiff-necked, G-d is pointing out that they don’t listen very well to G-d’s guidance. This metaphor is all over the Tanakh (Old Testament), and makes its way into the New Testament, in Greek, as sklero trachelos, paired with “uncircumcised,” which similarly suggests a refusal to obey divine commands.

Not Richard Armitage, but John Wycliffe, who died in 1384, a stubborn man. There are no contemporary images of him. This is a sixteenth century image. Harbin collection, at Newton Surmaville, Somerset.

So why stiff-necked? The first complete English Bible translations date from the late fourteenth century and are called Wycliffite (some previous partial translations, especially of the Gospels, survive as well). Their authors wrote in Middle English and translated from the Vulgate (the Latin Bible), a fifth century translation of the Bible into Latin made by St. Jerome that became the authoritative Bible of the Roman Church. How much Hebrew Jerome read and how directly he translated the books of the Tanakh into Latin is disputed, but he translated whichever source he used as durae cervicis, literally, hard of neck, which in Latin adds the figurative connotation of boldness or headstrong behavior. But the Wycliffites translated durae cervicis as “of hard noll,” and then added a gloss or inter-linear explanation, as at Exodus 32:9, that G-d saw the Israelites as a “hard-headed or stubborn” people. “Noll” is an Old English word that meant “head” or “top.” In any case, the Wycliffite translations were declared heretical by the English church in 1382, the English church banned further translations of the Bible in 1408, and the Council of Constance sealed the deal by ordering all of his books burned in 1415.

So the term “stife necked” came into English originally with the Bible translation of William Tyndale. Tyndale, denied permission in England to translate, went to the Netherlands. His translation of the Pentateuch appeared in 1530 in Antwerp, and it’s unclear what sources he used (he seems to have used a combination of the Vulgate, Erasmus’s critical edition of the Vulgate, the Septuagint, and the Polyglot Bible, but he had some knowledge of Hebrew as well). Note that it was illegal to own his translation of the Bible in England at the point at which it was published; Henry VIII condemned his works in 1530. Tyndale himself was burned at the stake in 1536, shortly after he’d completed revised translations of the entire Bible in 1534 and 1535. Copies discovered in England met a similar fate. But Henry also authorized an alternative translation, and the people who prepared those and later attempts (the Matthew Bible, the Great Bible, but most importantly the Authorized Version or King James Version of the Bible) relied heavily on Tyndale. The KJV is taken word-for-word from Tyndale up to 30 percent of the time.

Okay, I got a little carried away there. Anyway — because of the association of the term with the Israelites and their more or less constant wandering away from G-d, the term stiff-necked has taken on the connotation in English (beyond refusal) of active rebellion. Which made me think, of course, of the original Richard Armitage rebel.

Richard Armitage as Ricky Deeming in Gently Go Man, explaining why it is that he didn’t need to obey the rules. Definitely the stiff-necked type.

Hope this didn’t tire you out too much. I’ve covered mostly the negative sides of it so far, but there are also benefits to being stubborn, so there’ll be some more Armitage stubbornness to discuss soon. I’ve still got obdurate, implacable, relentless, persevering, tenacious, pertinacious, dogged, adamant, steadfast, and resolute left!

~ by Servetus on March 26, 2017.

17 Responses to “Richard Armitage: Too stubborn?”

  1. Ahh. Perfect lunchtime reading. Thanks.
    Really interesting how his acting style and the characters he plays lead to examples of only certain words. And the male / female differences in word usage that still persist.
    Apparently my reading materials are not early enough… froward and contumacious are new ones on me!
    And as for the rest, I find understanding word origins very interesting. (And especially with illustrations!)


    • Froward was almost completely out of usage by 1900, whereas contumacious seems to have survived fragmentarily until the 1950s. I’d run across froward before, but I learned contumacious while writing this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Servetus, how art thou? It’s been a while since I’ve been here as I’ve been immersed not just in the job but in my screenwriting studies. Thanks for unearthing this lovely interview with RA, who is as thoughtful and detailed as ever. His musing on the Elizabethan mind is fascinat.


  3. As always, thank you for all the work you put into this, and for the information. I can’t believe you had me so blissfully gazing at the picture with his head down, only to decapitate him, and replace his beauty with the head of a pig! It’s a profane desecration of such a masterpiece. 😂


  4. Thank you for this instructive post. Summertime (l’ ora legale) upsets me, but now I’ m literally purring! I think that another appropriate word could be “exasperating”…fault of the lack of sleep… don’t mind!


  5. Good reading! But, gosh, some words are hard to pronounce 😀


    • I think this was probably a reason Orwell preferred English vocabulary to Latinate vocabulary — shorter, easier to say and read, more direct 🙂


  6. Headstrong, willful, obstinate, stubborn, perverse… reading these all bring to mind one person- my young love. One of his first words was “perverse”, though he adorably pronounced it “pwa-bwus” when he introduced himself to people at the age of two. Always the look of confusion, followed by my explanation. “He said he’s perverse. He isn’t lying.” LOL


  7. You’re a walking thesaurus! 😉


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