Here’s one to gymnologize over: the case for bringing back snollygostery, trumpery and humbuggery

The Oxford English Dictionary overflows with words that have been created (most during the 1800s) to tilt at governments of various sorts. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Words and expressions come and go. Sometimes you can understand why they don’t linger. It’s hard to imagine there was ever much call for peristeronic, “suggestive of pigeons” – and there’s no evidence that gymnologize, “to argue whilst naked”, or decacuminated, “having the tops cut off”, have even been used.

Words of such spectacular pomp and pointlessness only ever had lives inside dictionaries (early lexicographers were notorious for making them up).

But sometimes we seem to let extremely useful expressions drop by the wayside. Humans suffer from a kind of congenital leximania, an irresistible passion for creating new words (such as leximania). In our lust for neologisms we lose sight of those expressions already doing a very fine job.

Here is a handful of such words – they have political applications and are today as apt and as ept as they ever were.

Political smutting and besmearing

Now is not the time to let roorback go – a neatly packaged expression that covers any false report, or slander, propagated for political purposes.

It derives from the name of a fictitious author Baron von Roorback. Published in 1844, his account of a gang of slaves destined for the Louisiana sugar mills was intended to disgrace James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. The humbug was exposed, but usually the timing of roorbacks is such that they can’t be detected before voters go to the polls.

Clearly, spreading disparaging furphies for political gain is not new. The word was popular throughout the 19th century, even used a little into the 20th century, before it quietly shuffled off the lexical coil.

But today’s digital world is providing the perfect ecosystem for the roorback to flourish. A word for “political dirty tricks” – how could we let that one go?

Monumental talknophical assumnacy

Snollygoster is another wonderful creation to come out of the USA (around the same time as roorback). It could refer generally to smart people without principles, but its reference narrowed rather quickly to the crafty and unprincipled politician. The definition provided by the Columbus Dispatch (October 28, 1895) is worth repeating in full:

A snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.

Whenever I ponder the phrase “monumental talknophical assumnancy”, I’m reminded of Alice’s words on hearing the poem Jabberwocky: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are.” Talknophical assumnancy – there’s a lot of it about.

The delightful name snollygoster conceals its nasty origins. The word is probably connected to snallygaster, a reshaping of Pennsylvania German schnelle Geister (“quick spirits”) – dragon-like creatures which, as folklore describes, made a practice of stealing children and chickens from unsuspecting farm folk.

The shift from “grotesque gargantua” to “political shyster” is telling. But it’ll take more than a hex sign on a building or rabbit’s-foot talisman to keep these modern-day snollygosters at bay.

A flourishing of ocracies

The Oxford English Dictionary overflows with words that have been created (most during the 1800s) to tilt at governments of various sorts. One stands out and that is kakistocracy, the creation of English writer Thomas Love Peacock for “government by its most unprincipled citizens” (from Greek kakistos “the worst”). In fact little needs to be done to rehabilitate his word.

Its comeback of late has been spectacular, with headlines heralding a new era of kakistocratical rule.

So will we be seeing a reappearance of other “ocracies”? Foolocracy and kleptocracy spring to mind.

Trumpery and puffery

Though strictly not a political term, the old word trumpery has always had close links with political shenanigans, even before it acquired its extra significance today.

The word appeared in English in the 1400s, meaning “deception; fraud”. It derives from the verb trump “to deceive; cheat” – not to be confused with the other trump verb around at that time meaning “to blow a trumpet” or “break wind audibly” (though it seems to me these trumps have always been tightly linked).

Trumpery then shifted to mean “something of less value than it seems” before extending to “something of no value at all” (applied to abstract things, objects and people).

Of course, trumpery has deception at its root, but the -ery ending adds that extra layer of unscrupulousness (bringing to mind trickery, humbuggery, jiggery-pokery and a pile of other seedy “ery” words).

And while there is the other positive trump (that appears in expressions like turn up trumps), it’s worth highlighting that this trump is nothing more than a corrupted form of triumph (an alternative pronunciation that appeared in the 1500s).

The two trumps are currently on a collision course, and we know from experience that rarely do positive meanings prevail when senses coincide in this way. Besides, there’s always been a dishonest whiff around even the trump card in its extended uses — and, as the behaviour of words over time shows, dishonest whiffs will just get whiffier.

Trumpery, kakistocracy, snollygoster and roorback are words worthy of a phoenix-like re-application — let’s pick them up, dust them off and put them to work.

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