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This is another of that set of extroverted and fanciful words that originated in the fast-expanding United States of the nineteenth century. I see a snollygoster as a outsized individual with a carpetbag, flowered waistcoat, expansive demeanour and a large cigar. It actually refers to a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician.

These days it’s hardly heard. Its last burst of public notice came when President Truman used it in 1952, and defined it, either in ignorance or impishness, as “a man born out of wedlock”. Many people put him right, some quoting this splendid definition:

A Georgia editor kindly explains that “a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy”.

Columbus Dispatch, Ohio, 28 Oct. 1895.

But an American dictionary fifty years earlier had defined it simply as a shyster.

The origin is unknown, though the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may be linked to snallygoster, which some suppose to derive from the German schnelle Geister, literally a fast-moving ghost, and which was a mythical monster of vast size — half reptile, half bird — supposedly found in Maryland, and which was invented to terrify ex-slaves out of voting.

Page created 10 Jul. 1999

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 10 July 1999.