PRESIDENT.

A short TED talk by Mark Forsyth that starts with the fine old American slang word snollygoster ‘A shrewd, unprincipled person, esp. a politician’ (OED; 1895 Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch 28 Oct. 4/3 “A Georgia editor kindly explains that ‘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’”) and proceeds to a very interesting discussion of how George Washington came to be called “president” (a lowly title at the time, meaning simply ‘An appointed or elected head of any gathering’; it was used for such things as shire meetings and dinner parties). I like very much his final remark about reality changing words far more than words can change reality. Thanks, Sven!

Comments

  1. Pity they didn’t call him “Doge”.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    The narrator of Clancy Sigal’s novel/memoir “Going Away” refers to JFK’s book as “Profiles in Snollygostering.”

  3. Don’t blame JFK: he didn’t write it.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    Forsyth’s attribution of “bold as brass” to Brass Crosby sounds fishy to me (splendid though it would be if true.) “Brazen” for “impudent” goes back a long way before the eighteenth century, I think, for one thing.
    Anybody have any actual evidence? OED? I should be delighted to be proved wrong.

  5. OED2 doesn’t support the Brass Crosby thesis, David, but it doesn’t contradict it either. It’ll be a while before the OED3 people get to it, unless they’ve capriciously chosen it for an out-of-sequence update. Here’s the relevant OED2 text:
    4. a. fig. Taken as a type of insensibility to shame: hence, Effrontery, impudence, unblushingness.
    [1588 Shakes. L.L.L. v. ii. 395 Can any face of brasse hold longer out?]
    1642 Fuller Holy & Prof. St. v. x. 395 His face is of brasse, which may be said either ever or never to blush.
    1682 Dryden Satyr to Muse 236 And like the Sweed is very Rich in Brass.
    a1734 North Exam. iii. viii. ¶17 The Author hath the Brass to add, etc.
    1780 F. Burney Diary & Lett. I. 318, I entered the room without astonishing the company by my brass.
    1853 Lynch Self-Impr. 45 An empty, vaunting person, who has brass enough to face the world.
    b. Colloq. phr. as bold as brass: very bold(ly) or impudent(ly); brazen-faced(ly).
    1789 G. Parker Life’s Painter 162 He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.
    1849 Lytton Caxtons I. i. iv. 27 Master Sisty (coming out of the house as bold as brass) continued rapidly [etc.].
    1922 S. Weyman Ovington’s Bank xvii. 188 Seeing as he hung back I up to him bold as brass.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Thanks. Interesting. Looks like the timescale works for Brass Crosby being the ur-bold-as-brass, at any rate.
    Seems a problem that the “bold” in “bold as brass” means “impudent” rather than “daring” though, which is what the courageous Mr Crosby surely was. That’s what made me think this was probably a bit of folk etymology.

  7. Here’s the OED2 sense 4 of brass n.:

    a. fig. Taken as a type of insensibility to shame: hence, Effrontery, impudence, unblushingness.
    [1598 Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost v. ii. 395 Can anie face of brasse hold longer out?]
    1642 T. Fuller Holy State v. x. 395 His face is of brasse, which may be said either ever or never to blush.
    1682 Satyr to Muse 236 And like the Sweed is very Rich in Brass.
    a1734 R. North Examen (1740) iii. viii. ⁋17 The Author hath the Brass to add, etc.
    1780 C. A. Burney Jrnl. Apr. in Early Jrnls. & Lett. (2003) IV. 41, I entered the Room without astonishing the Company by my Brass.
    1853 T. T. Lynch Lect. Self Improvem. 45 An empty, vaunting person, who has brass enough to face the world.
    b. Colloq. phr. as bold as brass: very bold(ly) or impudent(ly); brazen-faced(ly).
    1789 G. Parker Life’s Painter xv. 162 He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.
    1849 E. Bulwer-Lytton Caxtons I. i. iv. 27 Master Sisty (coming out of the house as bold as brass) continued rapidly.
    1922 S. J. Weyman Ovington’s Bank xvii. 188 Seeing as he hung back I up to him bold as brass.

    So the period is right for Brass Crosby (1725-1793), but it looks like the metaphor, if not the phrase itself, is indeed much older. The first occurrence of brazen-faced is 1573.

  8. Forsyth’s attribution of “bold as brass” to Brass Crosby sounds fishy to me (splendid though it would be if true.)
    That was my reaction as well.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    snollygoster
    I wonder if the goster element is the same as (or related to) the word gowster/gawster that was discussed here a while ago? the similarity in both sound and meaning seems to me too striking to be just coincidence.

  10. “Pity they didn’t call him “Doge”.”
    We’re still getting over the reign of our own Duce, though I am sure he would have screwed up trying to pronounce it.

  11. Such a good word because it so aptly describes so many of those who hold or aspire to public office today, shame it’s no longer in popular use.
    Cheers,
    Andrew

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