In anticipation of the coming election campaign, I thought it would be useful to draw up a short list of appropriate terms of abuse for those wishing to address, accuse or berate this election’s crop of candidates, especially those who are tired of using the more common and somewhat tame epithets, such as knave, varlet, whoreson, rogue, and scoundrel. Politicians’ eyes tend to gloss over the more familiar terms by which they have been regularly addressed since assuming office. If you want to catch their attention, you may find that one or all of the following words will have the desired effect.
The more recent form of “rascallion,” which itself is simply the word “rascal” with a fancy ending. In the fourteenth century, the term “rascal” was used to mean “rabble,” i.e. the lower or common soldiers and camp-followers of an army. By the sixteenth century, rascals had come to have a more scurrilous odour, and the word was used to describe any low, mean, undisciplined or dishonest fellow, viz, a knave, rogue or scamp. A political text published in 1686, for example, berated a politician in the following terms: “There was no rakehell, no ruffian, no knave, no villain, no cogging raskall…but his hand was in with him.”
“Villain,” by the way, is not a strong enough term of abuse to apply generally to politicians: originally taken from the French, a villain was simply a country dweller who had moved into a city or town. A villain could have been a perfectly honest person, although townspeople assumed that they weren’t. And now a villain, by definition, isn’t. It is appropriate, however, to refer to a politician elected in a predominantly rural riding as a villain when he or she arrives in Ottawa and takes his or her place among the cogging rapscallions on Parliament Hill.
In the Second Part of Henry VI, Act iv, scene i, the Earl of Suffolk greets Whitmore, his executioner, with the words: “Great men oft dye by vile Bezonians.” A bezonian, from the Italian besonio, was a raw recruit, and hence a needy beggar, a knave and a rascal, “more fitted to the spade than to the sword,” and more likely to steal his food and equipment from his fellows than to provide for himself. This term might be applied today to any newly elected politician who knows little and cares less about how a government is supposed to work, and seeks only to bring others down in order to further their own personal agendas. If you precede the term with the adjective “vile,” so much the better.
A pilgarlic is a contemptuous term for an old man. A corruption of “pilled” or “peeled garlic,” it refers to an old man’s bald pate as an object of derision. The insult, now directed at baldness in general, may be a hold-over from the original association of baldness with venereal disease. A 17th-century pamphlet, entitled “The Hunting of the Pox,” was subtitled: “A pleasant discourse between the Author and Pild-Garlike, wherein is declared the Nature of the Disease, how it came, and how it may be cured.” Any politician who is well into their dotage, or who deliberately shave their heads to make themselves appear younger, are apt targets for this term.
A mangy creature, a cur, a rogue street dog. Samuel Johnson derived the term from the French ronger, which means to chew, like a dog with a bone – remember poem of The Golden Dog, a historic building in Quebec City, which begins: Je suis le chien qui ronge l’os. I am the dog who chews his bone. And ends with the prediction: A time will come that is not yet come, When I’ll bit those who have bitten me.” This association has interesting political implications. “Runnion” can also mean the male organ (i.e. a bone), and so to associate the term with chewing has a distinctly graphic, but not necessarily inappropriate, connotation.
From the French potron, meaning “a sluggard.” In the seventeenth century, the French referred to the “derrière” as un potron-jaquet, or un potron-minet, literally a squirrel’s or a cat’s posterior, from the habit of those animals of raising their tails the better to display their rear ends, usually while in retreat from real or imagined danger. Whence the English “poltroon,” meaning a base coward, a dastard, a craven. A poltroon turns tail and does nothing whenever a display of valour or outrage is called for. A poltroon is thus a pompous time-server, avoiding any attention that might cause him or her to lose an election. However, in a study of the government of Venice, published in English in 1677, the author stated that “’tis laziness and poltroonery to retire from the government to spend your age in ease.” This term may be applied to a politician who, having served a number of terms without having expressed a single opinion on any issue whatsoever, is about to retire with a healthy pension, perhaps to seek a seat on the board of directors of a corporation that no one has ever heard of.
No one can cast insults like Shakespeare. Margaret Atwood noted this in her novel Hagseed, a modern interpretation of The Tempest. Strings of insults also appear in King Lear, for example when Kent encounters Oswald outside Gloucester’s castle, he buries him in a mound of epithets meant to lure him into a dual. Poor Oswald is, according to Kent:
A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.
See how much fun it is when you allow yourself to get into it? When Oswald refuses to draw his sword, Kent shouts: “Draw, you whoreson cullionly barber-monger, draw!”
A barber-monger would be a constant frequenter of the barbershop, i.e. a dandy or a fop, and a cullion, from the Latin culleus, is a testicle. Thus Chaucer, in The Pardoner’s Tale, has: “I would I had thy cullions in my hand.” Any of Kent’s accusations that seem appropriate may be used to good effect. Try a combination of several. “Eater of broken meats” would be particularly effective if applied to a professed vegan, and “super-serviceable finical rogue” would apply to just about anyone seeking public office.