Running Out of Words to Talk About Trump and Brexit? Consider These 10 Weird and Wonderful Terms

Farage and Trump
Then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump shakes hands with Member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage at a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 24. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

It's tough to know what to even say about politics these days. This week alone began with British Prime Minister Theresa May's long-awaited Brexit speech, and ends with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. So what better time to advance your political vocabulary with these 10 obscure terms, cherry-picked from the tweets of language-based Twitter account @HaggardHawks.


Snollygoster is a term lifted from 19th century American slang, defined as "an unprincipled person," or, more specifically, "a politician who will do or say anything to achieve public office." Although no one is entirely sure where the word itself comes from, its roots are often said to be entwined with that of the snallygaster, a monstrous part-bird, part-reptile said to inhabit the hills around Washington D.C., which in turn takes its name from the German schnelle geister, meaning "quick spirits."

Quite how the word came to be applied to politics is unclear, but given one newspaper's definition dating from 1895—"a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principals, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by sheer force of talknophical assumnancy"—it may be a word worth resurrecting.


In his Universal Etymological Dictionary (1751), the English lexicographer Nathan Bailey defined abydocomists as "sycophants who boast of their falsehood." The term is believed to derive from the town of Abydos in Ancient Egypt, whose inhabitants were (according to the citizens of Ancient Greece, at least) known for "inventing slanders."


A term from Scots dialect, a whipmegmorum is a noisy quarrel about politics. The word is thought to have began life as a bit of nonsense verse (equivalent to a "falderal" or a "hey-nonny-no,") and in that sense first cropped up in the lyrics to an old Scots ballad, The Life and Death of Habbie Simpson, Piper of Kilbarchan, in the mid-1600s.

How it came to be associated with political wrangling is unclear, but according to the Scottish National Dictionary the word can also be spelled whigmigmorum—suggesting that the ballad's lyrics might once have been satirically altered to refer to the British Whig party, with the meaning shifting with it.


According to a quote cited the Oxford English Dictionary, a charientism or charientismus is a figure of speech that "couches a disagreeable sense under agreeable expressions." In simpler terms, when a politician tries to phrase bad news in a positive way, that's a charientism; appropriately enough, the term derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning "graceful" or "artful." Another rhetorical gem that may well come in handy this year is…


…which is a turn of phrase in which a speaker avoids an issue entirely by changing the subject. It derives from Greek roots literally means "other kind."


Figuratively speaking, a toad-eater is a fawning, sycophantic follower, and in particular one who tolerates or is complicit in their superior's lies or deception. Originally however, a toad-eater was quite literally that: someone who ate (or at least gave the illusion of eating) live toads.

The term alludes to a practice once used by itinerant quacks or charlatans looking to prove the efficacy of some dubious cure-all remedy they were trying to sell. Before a suitably credulous audience, the quack would have his assistant consume a live toad—a creature once widely believed to be poisonous—then feign illness and writhing agony, before downing a glass of the quack's miraculous potion and staging a full and miraculous recovery. By the mid-18th century, the toad-eater's toad-eating ploy was, mercifully, a dying art, but the word remained in use to refer to someone who obsequiously follows another's lead, especially if that involves tolerating their deception or manipulation.


While a plutocracy is a government formed from only the very wealthy, a plutogogue is a politician or social agitator who only appeals to the very wealthy, either personally or politically. The rule of a plutogogue, should you need a word for it, is a plutogogy.


Admittedly, the ideal time to drop the obscure word roorback into conversation might have passed: When the FBI announced the reinvestigation of Hillary Clinton's emails just days before the 2016 election (before deciding barely a day later that there was in fact nothing worth investigating), it strayed dangerously close to roorback territory. Defined as "a false report or slander circulated by an opposition for their own political gain," the term derives from another equally questionable moment in American electoral history.

In 1844, an abolitionist New York newspaper published an extract from a travelogue entitled Roorback's Tour Through The Western And Southern States In 1836. In the extract, the author—a "Baron von Roorback"—described coming across an encampment of slaves all branded with the initials of the Democratic presidential candidate, James K. Polk. The extract itself was indeed taken from an genuine American travelogue—but the name-checking of candidate Polk was entirely fictitious, and had been circulated only to damage his reputation among the newspaper's abolitionist readers. Despite the slander against him, however, Polk swept to victory in the 1844 election, winning 170 electoral college votes as opposed to his rival's 105.


The contents of the controversial Trump dossier might indeed turn out to be "fake news," of course. But if they don't, one word that might come in useful is obreption, an old legal term dating back to the early 16th century defined as "the act of obtaining or attempting to obtain something by fraudulent means." It goes hand in hand with another useful word, subreption, defined as "the misrepresentation or suppression of the truth," and may well be worth reviving alongside…


…which is the ease or fluency of telling lies.

Paul Anthony Jones' The Accidental Dictionary: The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words is published by Elliott & Thompson.