Mind your language

Where did Boris Johnson’s ‘gloomsters’ come from?

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

When Boris Johnson hit out at ‘the doomsters and the gloomsters’, I was willing to believe that the word gloomster existed. Well, it does now.

English abounds in elements like the suffix ster by which new words may be generated. We know without thinking about it that words ending in ster are slightly derogatory. A rhymer is romantic, and a rhymester vulgar.

Originally all sters were feminine. Before the Conquest, a seamestre was a sempstress and a bæcestre a baker. Among the Anglo-Saxons, it seems those trades were followed only by women. Of medieval coinages for trade-pursuits, only spinster survives as solely feminine in application, although its meaning has changed to ‘an unmarried woman’ rather than ‘a spinner of wool’; it is now pejorative too.

A doomster, one might think, is ‘a prophet of doom’, probably self-appointed. The Oxford English Dictionary is ignorant of that sense, not having fully revised its entry for the word since 1897, but lists it as an archaic name for a judge, a variant of deemster or dempster. The latter, of course, came into use as a surname, the best known holder being Nigel Dempster, that strange gossip columnist (1941-2007). Deemster in the Isle of Man is the title of a judge.

Since the ster suffix is so transparent, it is easy to see that a gloomster is analogous to the doomster. Gloom and glum are variants of the same word, but are apparently unrelated to the gloaming of twilight. Shakespeare wrote of ‘gloomy woods’, but it was not until 1947 that the doublet which inspired Boris Johnson — doom and gloom — came into being.

It featured in Finian’s Rainbow, which was a smash hit musical on Broadway but clocked up only 55 performances when it came to the Palace Theatre in London. In 1968, however, it was made into a film, which I bet Mr Johnson has seen.

I find Fred Astaire as an Irishman and Tommy Steele as a leprechaun slightly embarrassing, but in any case, Astaire, as Finian McLonergan, asks: ‘What has Ireland to live for now? Answer me that!’ Steele, as Og replies: ‘Doom and gloom. Doooom and gloooom.’ Thus it was that Og adumbrated the prophets of Project Fear.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments