WORD OF THE YEAR 2016: SNOLLYGOSTER
As 2016 drew to a close, Collins Dictionaries opted for Brexit as their Word of the Year, Oxford Dictionaries went with post-truth, and after much word-wrangling, Merriam-Webster plumped for surreal. Here at Haggard Hawks, we handed the choice of our very first Word of the Year over to you, and from a shortlist of five typically obscure and seldom-used words that seemed to sum up previous 12 months, a clear winner eventually emerged: taking more than two-fifths of all the votes cast, HH’s 2016 Word of the Year was snollygoster.
an unprincipled politician
Snollygoster is a term lifted from nineteenth-century American slang. Its roots are presumably entwined with that of the snallygaster, a monstrous part-bird-part-reptile said to inhabit the hills around Maryland and Washington, which in turn takes its name from the German schnelle geister, meaning “quick spirits”. Quite how that came to be applied to politics is unclear, but given one nineteenth-century newspaper editor’s definition that proved popular over on Twitter this year—“a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who ... gets there by sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnancy”—it’s a word well worth reviving after a year of political upset.
1st RUNNERS UP:
a blustering braggart
Borrowed from Spanish, the word cacafuego first appeared in English in The Fair Maid of the Inn, a 1625 work by the playwright John Fletcher. But as we explained in this blog post, the word itself first came to prominence almost 50 years earlier as the nickname of a Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Señora, that was captured by Sir Francis Drake off the coast of South America in 1578. At a time of heightened tensions between England and Spain, Drake’s victory proved a huge boost to English morale—while the tale of an extraordinarily powerful ship being easily vanquished gave us a word for someone who acts more impressive or imposing then they truly are. Built around the same template as spitfire, incidentally, the word cacafuego literally means “fire-shitter”...
a noisy quarrel about politics
If you saw our video on political terms, you’ll know this one already: the word whipmegmorum began life as the name of a Scottish folk dance first mentioned in an old Scots broadside, The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson, in the mid-1600s. Thanks to later (and probably deliberate) confusion with the name of the British Whig party, the word whipmegomorum or whigmigmorum eventually came to be used as an albeit long-forgotten word for a noisy political quarrel. And after a year of ever-more caustic political debates, on both sides of the Atlantic, we can safely say 2016 has had its fair share of those.
a sycophantic follower, especially one who
knowingly tolerates another’s deception
As you might also have read over on the HH blog, originally a toad-eater was precisely that: someone who ate (or at least gave the illusion of eating) live toads. The term alludes to a practice once employed by itinerant quacks looking to prove the efficacy of some dubious cure-all they were trying to sell. In front of a suitably credulous audience, the quack would have his assistant consume a live toad—a creature once widely believed to be poisonous—and drop to floor in feigned agony before downing a glass of the quack’s miraculous potion, and staging a full recovery. Mercifully by the mid-1700s the toad-eater’s toad-eating ploy was a dying art, but the word remained in use to refer to someone who obsequiously follows another’s lead—especially if that involves tolerating or prolonging a deception or manipulation.
a funeral ode or lament, a song of mourning
Derived via Latin from an Ancient Greek word for grief or sadness, an epicedium is a funeral ode or, more loosely, a lament for someone who is missed or who has passed away. And at the end of a year in which we seemed to lose (and are sadly continuing to lose) so many exceptional figures, this could be just the word we need to round off 2016.