Simanaitis Says

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THE BBC World Service reported today a British Liberal Party spokesman said that political coalition could “give the Conservative Party a heart and Labour a brain.”

Being an outsider to the Brits’ Conservatives (its center-right), Labour (center-left) and Liberals (perhaps a bit more left), I won’t take a stand on this comment, though I appreciate its wit. And it got me thinking of political name-calling, not only in the pejorative sense but also in general terms of identification.


The National Assembly of France. Drawing by Jacques-Louis David, 1790.

Left and Right. These terms arose in the National Assembly of France at the beginning of the revolution in 1789. Supporters of the king moved to the president’s right, according to the Baron de Gauville, “to avoid the shouts, oaths and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.”

In those pre-guillotine days (it wasn’t used until 1792), he ain’t seen nothing yet….

In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable 19th Edition, originally published in 1870, the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer noted that “In the House of Commons, the Opposition occupies the left-hand side of the Speaker. In the Austrian Assembly, the democratic party is called The Left.

Many countries of the British Commonwealth continue the British House of Commons pattern, swapping sides with a change in party leadership.


Left and right seating of the British House of Commons. Government leadership, not political stance, determines sides.

This is in contrast to the U.S. Congress, which is the same as Austrian practice. In both the Senate and the House of Representatives, seating is determined by political affiliation, not by which party is in power.


Seating in the 114th U.S. Congress. Above, the Senate; below, the House of Representatives. Republicans in red; Democrats blue; independents gray. Images by Nick.mon.

House The naming of a conservative right and liberal left is common throughout the world, though each local spectrum confounds any simple definition. A leftish politico in a generally conservative regime may well act politically to the right of counterparts in other countries.

Mugwumps. Enough of these polite political terms, let’s get down to good old fashioned pejoratives. One in the U.S. is to call an indecisive politico a mugwump. The joke of such indecision is “His mug is on one side of the fence, his wump is on the other.”

The term traces to an Algonquin Native American word meaning “person of importance” or “war leader.” Originally, it was high praise indeed, suggesting one who acts or thinks independently.


Elliot’s Indian Bible brought Christianity to the Algonquins.

In Algonquin Indian New Testament, Eliot’s Indian Bible, 1661, mugwump was used in describing Cornelius the Centurion who, in Acts 10:10-16 of the New Testament, shows his strength of conviction in accepting Christ’s teachings.


Peter Baptizes Centurion Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani, 1709.

Much later, in 1884, mugwump took on its current meaning. Mugwumps were Republican politicos who bolted from the party to support Democrat candidate Grover Cleveland for president. This was because of their supposed aloofness from party politics.


Cartoon appearing in Harper’s Weekly, October 11, 1884.

Notable Mugwumps included Mark Twain, political cartoonist Thomas Nast and future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandies. The mug and wump came later.

Scallywag. Also, scalawag. According to Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: Colloquialisms, and Catch-Phrases, Solecisms and Catachresis, Nicknames, and Vulgarisms, by Eric Partridge, a scalawag describes “a ne’er-do-well or disreputable fellow; a scoundrel. In politics, an impostor or a rascally intriguer.”

Originally, a scallywag was a name for farm stock of an inferior grade. It came to be a derogatory term describing Southern whites who supported the Republican Party and its post-Civil-War policy of Reconstruction.

Statesman. The term is bandied about these days to describe a skilled, experienced and respected political figure. It is, and should remain, high praise indeed.


Goodwin Jess “Goodie” Knight, 1896 – 1970, 31st Governor of California.

Wife Dottie says the last statesman she recalls was Goodie Knight, governor of California from 1953 to 1959. She kind of liked Big Daddy Unruh too. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Michael Rubin
    April 16, 2015

    Goody Knight? I’d pick Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, but that’s moi.

  2. sabresoftware
    April 17, 2015

    Then there’s the term “Tory” (still used today) to describe British and Canadian Conservative party members which has its roots in an Irish word meaning bandit, outlaw, robber, brigand.

    The term “Whig” used for Liberals has fallen out of use, but as I recall also had some less than savoury history (although I can’t find any information to back that up).

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