Poltroons, scalawags and lollygaggers — oh my!

Robert Houk • May 24, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Poltroon is now my favorite word. It has a certain ring to it.

Poltroon is an old word, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says became common in the early 16th century as something you would call a “wretched coward.” It’s origin can be traced back to an ancient Latin word for “poultry.”

I took notice of the word recently when I read a passage about Andrew Jackson taking offense to something printed in a partisan newspaper of his day. Charles Dickinson made the fatal mistake of accusing Old Hickory of being “a poltroon and a coward.” In those days, that was like calling someone “chicken and yellow.”

Those were fighting words to Jackson, and he challenged Dickinson to a duel. Dickinson lost his life following an exchange of pistol fire, but not before he lodged a bullet in the shoulder of the future president.

Poltroon has fallen out of style today. Merriam-Webster says it is among the least used words in the dictionary.

That’s a shame because it’s a word that rolls right off your tongue. The same is true for “scalawag.” When’s the last time you heard someone called a scalawag other than in a pirate movie?

Like poltroon, scalawag has become a forgotten word for many. I dare say reprobate hasn’t held up much better. Poltroon, scalawag and reprobate sound like the very words I would make up to describe someone who lacks ethical fortitude and moral fiber.

There are other equally descriptive words and phrases that don’t get their proper due. I thought of one just phrase the other day when I was trapped in a violent downpour without my umbrella.

“That was a real gully washer,” I thought as I tried to dry my hair with a handkerchief.

Of course I wouldn’t have been caught in that gully washer if I had not been “lollygagging” at Founders Park. I should note that lollygagging meant something a bit more different in the late 19th century than it does today. For the record, I was simply admiring the public art before I was “waylaid” by a gully washer.

“Swanky” is another dusty word that should be used more.

“Look at that captain of industry and all his swanky friends celebrating another record day on Wall Street.”

It conjures up quite a picture in your head, doesn’t it?

One of my all-time favorite picturesque words is “stem-winder,” as in making a speech, not winding a pocket watch.

“The politician delivered a real stem-winder at his swanky $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinner.”

I’m sure no poltroons were seen lollygagging at the event.

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