Q From Roberta Groom in the USA: I have been re-reading Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope and I wonder if you can explain the derivation of the phrase toad-eater? I can deduce what it means but the entire process sounds horrid.
A We have to go back to British market and fairground quack doctors of the seventeenth century and earlier for the origin of this one. It was common for such men to have an assistant to do the dirty work, often somebody young or half-witted or otherwise under the boss’s thumb. As part of their sales pitch, such fake medical men sometimes made their assistants eat (or more usually, pretend to eat) a toad.
The common European toad was commonly regarded as poisonous, as the warty glands on its skin secrete a rather nasty milky fluid when the animal is threatened (friends who are into natural history report they’ve handled toads many times and never had any trouble, but then they’ve not actually tried eating one alive; I’m told a dead one isn’t poisonous, provided you strip the skin off first, but the experiment is not to be recommended). The quack doctor would use his nostrums to make an apparently miraculous cure on his assistant and so enhance his reputation and his sales.
As a result, toad-eater came to be a nickname for a servile assistant to a showman. By the following century it had generalised into a term for any fawning flatterer or sycophant, and by the nineteenth century was often shortened to toady.