Kissing Ass and Living off Others I
Bill Long 2/24/08
Words to Describe Those Who Do...
For all our emphasis on personal freedom in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we spend a lot of time kissing ass. We do so for money, for food, for sex, for a number of reasons. Sometimes we have nicer terms to describe what we are doing--such as practicing deference or learning how to follow orders. Yet, I thought it might be good to review some historical terms we have for the dual phenomena of kissing ass and living off others. My purpose in doing this is to bring language alive--to restore the sense-appealing nature of language, so that we can actually "see" or "smell" the words, rather than live in the abstractions of 21st century words. Those that I would like to explore here are toady, lickspittle, smell-feast, parasite, sycophant, pickthank, bum-sucker and sponge. Each one has its own little story.
We all know that a toady is "a servile parasite; a sycophant, an interested flatterer" (OED). But this word only came about in this form in the 1820s. In 1826 Benjamin Disraeli wrote, "You know what a Toadey is? That agreeable animal which you meet every day in civilized society." Or, more vividly, from 1834: "The umbra or shadow--who accompanied any invited guest--and who was..usually a poor relative, or a humble friend--in modern cant 'a toady.'" By searching a bit you discover the connection between the word toady and toad. It runs through toadeater. That word goes back to 1629 and describes, appropriately, "one who eats toads." Why would anyone eat toads?
Ah, now we come to the "sensual" or "visual" part of language. A toadeater was so called because he was originally "the attendant of a charlatan, employed to eat or pretend to eat toads." But why would someone do that? Precisely because toads were believed to be poisonous and by eating the toads (or feigning to eat them), he would enable his master to exhibit his "skill" at expelling poison. Thus, the "charlatan" could get quite a following. From 1629: "I inquired of him if William Utting the toad-eater..did not once keepe at Laxfield; he tould me yes, and said he had seen him eate a toade, nay two..." From 1761: "Beckford, toad eater to the mountebank, as he has been not unaptly call'd." My essay explaining mountebank, and telling you why New York enacted laws against them in the early 1800s, is here.
Can't you just visualize the life situation in which a "toadeater" would have to "perform"? If it is difficult for you to do so, just go to the movie Sweeney Todd, the play/movie set in mid-19th century England, and imagine the miserable conditions under which the "boy" (Tobias Ragg) of the "great" Italian street barber Adolfo Pirelli (played wonderfully by Sacha Baron Cohen--far better than he played his own Borat role) existed. If he didn't do what Pirelli wanted, he could have been flayed to within an inch of his life, and the law would not have protected him one whit. So, we see that a toadeater is a person who "performed" by eating or feigning the consumption of toads to make his "boss" look good. Thus, by the mid-18th century, toadeater meant a "fawning flatterer, parasite, sycophant." It was "abbreviated" to "toady" also in the 19th century, and became a verb as well as a noun or adjective. The next time you use the word--know its full context, and it will give you additional vehemence.
Lickspittle, Smell-feast and Parasite
If toady makes our skin crawl a little, lickspittle will turn your stomach. It is defined, of course as "an abject parasite or sycophant; a toady" by the OED, but its first appearance in 1629 gives us an unforgettable picture: "Gib, Lick her spittle From the ground. This disguiz'd humilitie Is both the swift, and safest way to pride." By the middle of the 19th century, one just had reference to "lickspittles" as a a category of people. But make no mistake. A lickspittle is one who licks someone's spittle from the ground as away of humbling him- or herself to them. How much more graphic can you get?
A smell-feast is "one who scents out where feasting is to be had; one who comes uninvited to share in a feast; a parasite, a greedy sponger." The OED tells us that this archaic word was very commonly used from about 1540-1700. It almost appears as if the word ought to come out of the world of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but it found its home elsewhere. From 1542: "Parasites, wer called suche smellefeastes as would seeke to bee free geastes at riche mennes tables." Can't you see the picture here, too? A poor or hungry person is walking down the streets of London. He wants to catch a "whiff" of food in the air. Once he traverses the street, and smells the various odors, he decides which home he wants to invade. We see him, in our mind's eye, concocting a story of desperation, or flattery, or some skillful ruse that will enable him to get into the house and share the food. He is, as we say, a "smell-feast."
In order to get yourself into the feast, you have to employ some kind of flattery of your host. Once you do, you enter the world of parasitism--in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long