(n.) an unprincipled politician who will do anything to achieve public office
Towards the end of 2016, we asked you all to vote for our very first Word of the Year. After a year of tragic losses, Brexit shenanigans, political mendacity and trumpery, we narrowed things down to a shortlist of just five words.
Epicedium, whipmegmorum, cacafuego and toad-eater all fell at the final hurdle, which meant that—polling more than two-fifths of all the votes cast—snollygoster was crowned the inaugural HH Word of 2016:
Who knows, maybe this year talknophical or assumnacy might make the final cut. But for the time being (and for the foreseeable future at least) snollygoster really is the word of the moment—so where does it come from?
Well, although we attached a quote from the 1895 Indianapolis Journal to our original snollygoster tweet, the word itself has been with us slightly longer: the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed its earliest record in an 1846 edition of the Kentucky Commonwealth that referred to “a rale [i.e. real] propelling double-revolving locomotive Snolly-Goster, ready to attack anything”. Well, quite.
Elsewhere, a plantation-workers’ dance published in 1863 included the line “We am the snolly-gosters / An’ lubs Jim Ribber oysters”, while a sheet music catalogue published by a New York piano-maker in 1870 listed a song for sale entitled Snollygoster Ebenezer.
The word seemingly fell out of use in the early twentieth century, but was temporarily rescued from obscurity by none other than Harry Truman, who used it (supposedly followed by the words, “Better look that word up—it’s a good one”) in an electioneering speech to the press in 1952.
Which brings us neatly to this, from the very next year:
Gorilla-Like Beast Seen Roaming Woods Near Elkton, In Md.’s “Snallygaster” Country
The Washington Post (1953)
That’s a front-page headline from an edition of The Washington Post that hit newsstands on 28 August 1953. Nope, snallygaster is not some later spelling variant of snollygoster. And no, Maryland’s “Snallygaster Country” is not some kind of rural retreat for Washington’s most disreputable public statesmen. The snallygaster was something altogether different.
According to local folklore, the snallygaster was a legendary monster—a giant, bloodthirsty dragon-like creature—that was said to inhabit the hills surrounding Maryland and the District of Columbia, where it prayed on livestock and young children. Tales of bizarre creatures living in the Maryland hills have been recorded ever since the area was settled by Dutch and German immigrants in the early 1700s, and it’s that cultural heritage that has led to the fairly convincing theory that snallygaster is a corruption of the German schnelle geister, meaning “quick spirits” or “quick ghosts”.
But what does that have to do with dishonest politicians? Well, one popular explanation claims that snollygoster is probably a corruption of snallygaster—so while the snallygaster was busy creeping its way around the Maryland hills looking for its next meal, the snollygosters of nearby DC were creeping around Capitol Hill looking for their next opportunity to snatch public office. Seemingly, the word simply migrated from one insidious monster to the other, albeit with a slightly rejigged spelling.
The problem with that, however, is that there just isn’t the evidence to back it up.
So far, the earliest known written records of the snallygaster-with-an-A only date back to mid-1900s, when the word (a true product of its time, if ever there was one) was used as the name of a malevolent monster supposedly invented to scare former slaves from voting in local elections. Until evidence of the snallygaster is found that predates the snollygoster-with-an-O of the mid-1800s, it seems unlikely the the politician is the later of the two.
It’s possible that snollygoster is still derived from schnelle geister, of course, but drawing a connection between “quick spirits” and personal or political underhandedness is tricky. Instead, it could be the case that snollygoster is—well, just a made-up word.
Nineteenth-century American slang was a notoriously fertile hot-bed of linguistic jiggery-pokery, with ever more nonsensical words falling in and out of fashion and being invented, essentially at random, merely to outdo one another:
Could it be that snollygoster is just a made-up nonsense word—albeit one with an undeniably useful meaning? It’s certainly possible. And frankly, it wouldn’t be the first time something to do with politics has turned out to be entirely fictitious...