Saturday, August 16, 2014

Forgotten English Words

by Maggi Andersen

As I like to use old words in my books, I thought I'd look at some no longer in use in the English language, and their meaning.

1746 H.Walpole Let. to Mann 21 Aug. "I am retired hither like an old summer dowager; only that I have no toad-eater to take the air with me."

TOAD-EATER  A toad-eater had one of the most unpleasant jobs in the history of medicine. In the 17th century, a charlatan's obediant side-kick would, in view of a crowd, pretend to eat a toad; a creature seen as very poisonous. He would then fein a severe reaction, to the horror or amusement of the naive crowd. Then the mountbank master, who was careful not to invoke the name of St. Benedict, the patron saint of poisoning victims, would dramatically demonstrate the curative power of a remedy potion he had for sale and "revive" his sidekick by pouring the miracle nostrum into his mouth.

It wasn’t clear whether or not toad-eaters did actually eat the toads. There are records of people having heard of someone who had once seen it happen, but no first-hand accounts. Presumably, the toad-eater would simply pretend to eat it. Or perhaps eat a non-poisonous frog. Or they might have swallowed the toad and simply accepted the resulting illness as the cost of keeping their jobs.

Samuel Butler commented on the psychology used by these hucksters:

Doubtless, the pleasure is as great,
Of being cheated, as to cheat;
As lookers-on feel most delight,
That least perceive a juggler's slight,
And still the less they understand,
The more th' admire his slight of hand.

Toads were once used for a variety of different applications for the sick. Salmon's 1678 Dictionary: "Toad steeped in vinegar...stops bleeding of the nose, especially laid to the forehead...or hung around the neck."


A corresponding verb based upon this common scenario, toad-eat,  developed about this time. It meant to do something unpleasant for one's master and survived as the word "toady."

The toxicity of toads was legendary. Thomas Lupton tells a supposedly true story of two lovers who both died suddenly from rubbing their teeth with leaves of sage, an early substitute for a toothbrush, at the base of which "was a greate toade founde, which infected the same with his venomous breath."

In 1811 a toad eater was a poor female relation and humble companion or reduced gentlewoman in a great family, the standing butt on whom all kinds of practical jokes are played off and all ill humours vented.

Today, the word "toad-eating" as well as the practice is now  forgotten but for the term 'toady'. A toad-eater was someone who would risk illness and even death for his boss, which suggests he would have been an obsequious type of person. Thus, a toady today is defined as a bootlicker, brownnose, fawn, flatterer, a stooge or a 'yes' man.

FORGOTTEN ENGLISH by Jeffrey Kacirk Quill William Morrow, NY.
Definition taken from The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, originally by Francis Grose.


Maggi Andersen writes historical romance mysteries and adventure novels. 

WHAT A RAKE WANTS Book #3, The Spies of Mayfair is released on 26th August with Knox Robinson Publishing.

King George sends his private investigator, an Irishman, Kieran Flynn, Lord Montsimon, on a mission, the reason for which is unclear. Is it a plot against the Crown? Or something entirely unrelated? Flynn's inquiries lead him to the widow, Lady Althea Brookwood. Known amongst the ton as a rake, Flynn is rarely turned down by a lady, and when Althea refuses not just him but many other men, he becomes intrigued. After her neighbor, Sir Harold Crowthorne informs Althea that he means to take her country property, Owltree Cottage, by fair means or foul, she must search for help. The first man she turns to is promptly murdered and the second lies to her. That leaves Flynn, Lord Montsimon, a man she has been studiously avoiding. But Montsimon is decidedly unhelpful, and more than a little mysterious. Her only option is to seduce him. Althea has little confidence that she will succeed, especially as before her husband was killed in a duel, he often told her she was quite hopeless at intimacy. When a spy is murdered, Flynn wonders just what Althea knows and what her involvement might be with the man the king wants Flynn to investigate.

Available in print and ebook
Knox Robinson Publishing

1 comment:

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