I was proofreading a blog post recently when I came across a great new word – rat-baggery. It wasn’t in my usual reference guide, the Oxford English Dictionary online, so I had to turn to my good friend Google to check out the spelling and meaning. Wiktionary told me that it’s an Australian informal noun meaning bizarre or objectionable behaviour. Whilst the Urban Dictionary again confirmed the Australian connection, suggesting it was a word often used in politics to refer to ‘performing the actions of a ratbag’. Obviously, the origin is related to those universally despised rodents Rattus rattus. It made me think about all the different words and phrases we have in English for underhand behaviour and situations, especially in politics.
The Scottish connection
Skulduggery is a great word to describe underhand or unscrupulous behaviour. I was hoping for an interesting origin, perhaps involving skulls, but OED simply refers to its nineteenth century origin from an unknown Scottish origin. Jiggery-pokery is another brilliant word meaning deceitful or dishonest behaviour. This another variant of a Scottish word joukery-pawkery , which is connected to the much earlier sixteenth century word jouk meaning to turn quickly to avoid someone. Shenanigans always trips me up with its spelling. Unfortunately, yet again I couldn’t find the origin of this nineteenth century word that’s great for describing dishonest behaviour or mischief.
Machiavellian is another word often used in the political context to describe someone who is cunning, scheming and unscrupulous. This is derived from the Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who suggested in his work The Prince (1527) that political leaders may need to use unethical methods to acquire and use power. Think, House of Cards!
Still on the political theme, how many times have you heard politicians’ speeches described as ‘weasel words’ – deliberately ambiguous or misleading. The poor weasel doesn’t get a good press as weasel-faced is a derogatory adjective used to describe a person with an unattractive, sharp, pointed face. And, of course, there’s that famous phrase, often used in the media British, ‘snouts in the trough’ which gives the poor pig a bad name.
Leave a comment if you can think of any more somewhat derogatory terms like these, or if you’ve come across a new (to you) word like rat-baggery.