A henchman, or "hencher", is a loyal employee, supporter, or aide to some powerful figure engaged in nefarious or criminal enterprises. A henchman is typically relatively unimportant in the organization, a minion, whose value lies primarily in their unquestioning loyalty to their leader. The term henchman is often used derisively (even comically) to refer to an individual of low status who lacks any moral compass of their own.
The term henchman originally referred to one who attended a horse for his employer, 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.
The 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 Germanic languages, such as Old Frisian, Danish hingst, German, Dutch hengst and Afrikaans hings [həŋs]. 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 fact 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 was revived in English by way of 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.
The phrase henchman is also used as a pejorative for any sort of political mastermind or to present others as such. Thus it was 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. Rebekah Brooks has been described as the henchwoman of Rupert Murdoch.
In the novel Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore shows his teenage student Harry Potter a meeting from years earlier between himself and his former pupil Tom Riddle, who is better known by the title Lord Voldemort. Dumbledore questions Riddle about his motives in coming to ask him for a job at the school and refers to his group of followers known as Death Eaters as his "henchmen".
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- J.K, Rowling. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (First ed.). NYC: Scholastic Inc. pp. 441–45. ISBN 0-439-78454-9.