Mind your language

What to call an inferior politician?

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

‘What about poetaster, then?’ asked my husband accusingly, looking up from his whisky and the Spectator, in which I’d ruminated on gloomster.

He expects me to know the origins of all words, and blames me for their irregularities.

I’d long suffered an itch from poetaster. It’s not that I thought it pronounced poe-taster, but that I’d presumed the -aster element was from Greek aster, a star. It’s not. Why should a star make a poet a bad poet?


Now that I’ve looked it up, I know that -aster is a classical Latin suffix expressing incomplete resemblance. This suffix has no relation to the English -ster suffix, as in gloomster or spinster.

The most familiar English noun ending in -aster is cotoneaster. (Not, of course, pronounced cotton-easter, for it derives from the Latin for quince, cotonea, an alternative to cydonia.) Both poetaster and cotoneaster occur less than once every ten million words in the tonnage of words that lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary shovel through. Politicaster, a pejorative version of politician, occurs less than once every 100 million words. ‘The country is very sick of the parliamentary squabbles of politicasters,’ declared the Pall Mall Gazette in 1892. What’s new?

There are also oleasters, wild olives with inedible fruit. I see they are mentioned in an Anglo-Saxon medical treatise called Bald’s Leechbook, preserved in a 10th-century manuscript.

In my London street we have oleanders, shrubs with a name of a gloriously complicated history tangled in rhododendrons, rhododaphnes and laurels. This week’s laurels should go to Tom Utley of the Daily Mail, who has found an early occurrence of doom and gloom from P.G. Wodehouse. I’d quoted it from Finian’s Rainbow, first performed on Broadway in January 1947. Did Wodehouse rush home from the theatre and insert it in Full Moon, published in May 1947?

Prudence Garland had arrived at Blandings, ‘torn from her betrothed on her wedding morning’ and, though she had ‘taken her broken heart out for an airing in the grounds, an atmosphere of doom and gloom still pervaded the premises like the smell of boiling cabbage’.

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