Word History

Snollygoster

Even lexicographers are wrong sometimes


Once a word is removed from our Collegiate Dictionary—a sign that it's no longer used regularly enough to be included in anything but the Unabridged—people tend to use it even less than before. And then there's snollygoster.

'Snollygoster', a word for "an unprincipled but shrewd person," might derive from the word 'snallygaster', which is used to describe a mythical creature from rural Maryland that is half reptile and half bird. But 'snallygaster' appears in print after 'snollygoster'.

The word seems to emerge from the shadows like a mythical creature come election season. A favorite of political pundit Bill O'Reilly, snollygoster came into English in the 1800s to refer to a shrewd and unprincipled person, and especially an unprincipled politician. According to the lore:

Hon. H. W. J. Ham, a member of the Georgia Legislature the humorist of the last campaign is the author [of a new word] and the word is "snollygoster." This he constantly applied to a certain class of politicians in Georgia. When in Atlanta a few days since Mr. Ham was asked to assign a definite meaning of the word. He replied: "A snollygoster is one with an unquenchable thirst for office with neither the power to get it nor the ability to fill it." According to this definition Georgia does not have a monopoly of [sic] the snollygoster.
West Virginia School Journal, February 1893

Alas, poor lore: our first written evidence for snollygoster is from 1846. By the 1850s, it was used with some regularity in the American South to refer derogatorily and somewhat humorously to a politician. Etymologists posit that it might derive from the word snallygaster, which is used to describe a mythical creature from rural Maryland that is half reptile and half bird, and which purportedly preys on chickens and children. But there's a snag: snallygaster shows up in print much later than snollygoster does.

Snollygoster began to fade into obscurity, but got a boost when Harry S. Truman used it in a 1952 speech in Parkersburg, West Virginia, first denouncing Republican "snollygosters" and then quipping "I wish some of these snollygosters would read the New Testament and perform accordingly." When asked by the press corps what snollygoster meant, he said it referred to "a man born out of wedlock." Not so, cried various reporters:

Former President Truman may have been making a talknophical assumnacy when he said that snollygoster is what Southerners call a man born out of wedlock. Experts of the Dixie dialect rushed to their dictionaries .... They reported that a snollygoster can mean a number of things, including tadpoles and politicians. But they didn't find Truman's definition in their research.
Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 12 November 1953

As the dialectal furor faded, so too did snollygoster—so much so that we at Merriam-Webster removed the word from our abridged Collegiate Dictionary in 2003 for lack of sustained use.

Alas, poor lexicographers: snollygoster was almost singlehandedly revived by New York Times "On Language" columnist William Safire, who in 1980 wrote, "That's a power a President has—to bring back old worlds, as Harry Truman did with snollygoster—a linguistic power that Mr. Reagan will soon discover." Over the next half-dozen years, Safire used snollygoster in his "On Language" column, and by 2000, its use was on the upswing. Bill O'Reilly's love for the word has brought snollygoster roaring back. This time, the lexicographers were wrong.



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