Monday, March 05, 2012


The reference department has recently resurrected its blog, and a few days ago, a co-worker stopped at my cubicle and asked if I thought a post on the Oxford English Dictionary would be a good idea. I did. Then she asked if I would like to write it. Is the Pope crazy? Of course I would. But before I wrote it, I thought I ought to explore it a little more thoroughly so I would sound like I knew what I was talking about. And that's how this blog post came about. Not the one for work -- I still have no idea what to write for that. But this blog post that you are about to read about obselete insults.

You see, the OED has this magnificent feature called "Categories." They work the same way as the wonderful reverse dictionary my mother gave me many years ago -- you can choose a topic, and then look at hundreds or thousands of words that relate to that topic. You can pick categories by subject, usage, region, or origin. For example, say you want to know what specialized terms might be used in reference to clocks. You go to the Crafts and Trades category, click on Clocks and Watches, and there you are! 482 words about clocks!

It's amazing! It's so useful! Because you can't look up a word when you don't know what it is. Except now you can. Thank you, good people at the OED. I love you.

So, armed with this new method of research, what did I immediately look up? Words relating to Agriculture and Horticulture? Words that came into English from Aleutian? Rare words?

No. I went right for insults. (Naturally, there was a category for it.) And that is where I found about twelve thousand derogatory ways to refer to Whigs. Whigs have been around since the 1600s in various forms, and I don't know much about them. I can't imagine every party that ever called itself Whig held all the same beliefs, and I don't even know what those beliefs would be. What I do know is that it's a word that lends itself beautifully to a variety of delightful endings.

  • Whiggarchy or Whigocracy: government by Whigs
  • Whiggify or Whiggize: to make Whiggish
  • Whiggification: the process of making Whiggish
  • Whiggissimi: extreme or absolute Whigs (coined by Jonathan Swift)
  • Whiggological: relating to Whig principles
  • Whiggery: Whig principles or practices
  • Whiglet or Whigling: a small or petty Whig
  • Whigship: the personality or quality of a Whig
  • Whigster: a Whig

Three centuries this ridiculous word survived in common use. It originally comes (probably) from whiggamaire, from whig (to urge your horse onward) and mere (usually the sea or water, but more likely here, a boundary or border). In the late seventeenth century, a gang of Presbyterians marched across Scotland into Edinburgh and took over the government -- an event referred to as "the Whiggamore raid." Or possibly "road" because you can never tell what vowels Scots are trying to say. So, the word has been derogatory since the beginning. It surprises me a bit that any party wouldn't mind making themselves such easy targets, but I guess that's politics for you.

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