Lackeys and their odd connection to toads

Image via Pixabay.

V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel-winning writer who died recently, wrote about colonialism, displacement, exile, and being a victim, but was not universally held in high esteem. As one appreciation noted, H.B. Singh, a Marxist and Indian critic, called Naipaul “a lackey for neo-colonialism.”

Washington at times seems to be full of “lackeys.” Just before a special election, President Trump went to Ohio to campaign for Troy Balderson, a Republican state senator who was in a tight race for a US House seat. That indicated Balderson would be “a lackey” for the Washington insiders, the Ohio Democratic chairman said. Balderson won the election, albeit narrowly. He will join what a Washington Post columnist called “Trump and his lackeys in the Senate.” A New York Times columnist said that Trump “seems to always surround himself with lap dogs and lackeys, people who will do and say anything to defend and protect him, praise and promote him.”

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But after the meeting in Helsinki between the American and Russian presidents, a headline on another Times column said that “Trump Shows the World He’s Putin’s Lackey.”

Hmm. Can “lackeys” have “lackeys” of their own? And just what is a “lackey”?

Merriam-Webster has three relevant definitions: “a footman” or “servant”; “someone who does menial tasks or runs errands for another”; and “a servile follower” or “toady.”

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We’ll get to “toady” shortly. But first, we need to disappoint any readers who think that a “lackey” is so named because the person has a “lack” of something. Sorry, but “lack” derives from a Dutch word meaning “deficiency,” “fault,” or “blame,” The Oxford English Dictionary says. A “lackey” may have all of those traits, but above all, a “lackey” does the bidding of a master.

The OED says that the etymology of “lackey” is obscure, though it comes from an old French word “laquais,” which in the 15th century referred to a “kind of foot-soldier, subsequently a footman, servant.” “Lackey” appeared in English in the mid-16th century. Because a footman or servant runs around after the master, the word “lackey” took on the now-obsolete figurative meaning of “a constant follower,” the OED says, and “one who is servilely obsequious, a toady.” (There’s that word again.)

But a political “lackey” has its own specialized meaning, which first appeared in 1939, the OED says: “As a term of political abuse,” it means “a servile follower.” The first political “lackeys” were fascists condemned by the Communists; not long after, American bankers were called “lackeys of British Imperialism.”

A “lackey” is not merely a “sycophant,” someone who agrees with someone, often obsequiously. No, a “lackey” does another’s bidding, often bowing and scraping. The pecking order is clear: master and “lackey.” But one person’s “lackey” can be another’s “master”: If you ever watched Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, you’ll recognize the household hierarchy, where people of different stations are the boss and are in turn bossed.

Now, enter “toady.” Our discussion of “sycophant” included that word, as well. A “toady” usually wants something in return for the “toadyness.” And, similar to the way “sycophant” started as a flatterer, a “toady” began as a “humble friend,” with a cruel twist. The OED traces that use to 1744 in The Adventures of David Simple by Sarah Fielding, in which one character explains the expression “Toad-Eater” to another: “It is a Metaphor taken from a Mountebank’s Boy’s eating Toads, in order to shew his Master’s Skill in expelling Poison.” The boy swallows the toad at the master’s bidding, and the master gives the boy something to expel it. The supposition, the character says, is that people “in a State of Dependance, are forced to do the most nauseous things that can be thought on, to please and humour their Patrons.” But the expression is “generally used, by way of Derision, to the unfortunate Wretch who is thrown into such a miserable Situation.” That “Toad-Eater” was certainly a “lackey,” doing his master’s bidding.

The “toady” as we know it today first appeared in 1826 in the novel Vivian Grey by Benjamin Disraeli, the OED says, to mean “A servile parasite; a sycophant, an interested flatterer.” What is a “Toadey” according to Disraeli? “That agreeable animal which you meet every day in civilized society.” He was being facetious; he later called them “vermin.”

So, to recap: a “sycophant” always agrees, a “lackey” does someone’s bidding, and a “toady” will do disagreeable things, under the guise of friendship. They are all shades of an obsequious character eager to please, but they have distinct meanings, even in politics. Maybe especially in politics.

The Nobel committee did not consider V.S. Naipaul as anyone’s “lackey,” “toady,” or “sycophant.” Instead, the committee wrote, “Each one of us, his books declare, can choose to be a free individual. It is a matter of will and choice, and above all intellect.” No one is a “lackey” unless they want to be.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.