No Name-calling Here, Mr. Punchinello

February 6, 2013 by bet

{word wednesday} name-calling | gimmesomereads.com

Seriously — no name calling here; just appreciating funny-sounding words with intriguing back stories. Like I mentioned last {word wednesday}, two of the synonyms for milksop caught my funny bone: namby-pamby and milquetoast. I ended up checking their definitions and discovered they were more than just synonyms for milksop — each word had its own backstory.

Starting with the second oldest word first, namby-pamby was born in the mind of 18th century writer Henry Carey when he wrote a poem in 1725 ridiculing the verse (and politics) of Ambrose Philips. Carey formed the word to rhyme with the first syllable of his target’s name.

Namby-Pamby begins with these lines:

All ye Poets of the Age!
All ye Witlings of the Stage!
Learn your Jingles to reform!
Crop your Numbers and Conform:
Let your little Verses flow
Gently, Sweetly, Row by Row:
Let the Verse the Subject fit;
Little Subject, Little Wit.
Namby-Pamby is your Guide;
Albion’s Joy, Hibernia’s Pride.

The name stuck and other Tory satirists began referring to Philips as Namby-Pamby. The poem became heralded as a popular nursery rhyme and soon namby-pamby was a word with its own particular meaning.

nam·by-pam·by (adjective)

  • without firm methods or policy; weak or indecisive.
  • lacking in character, directness, or moral or emotional strength.
  • weakly sentimental, pretentious, or affected; insipid.

Next, we meet Caspar Milquetoast — the reluctant main character of H.T. Webster’s comic strip, The Timid Soul, started in the 1920s. Webster devised Caspar’s last name by misspelling and compounding ‘milk toast’ (an extremely bland meal good for an anxious stomach). Each comic strip depicts Milquetoast living the life of a doormat; or as Webster describes his character – ”the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick”. [I couldn't find any images that were definitely in the public domain to share, but you can see some here.] Soon Caspar’s last name became a noun — at least in the American vocabulary.

milque·toast (noun)

  • a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one
    who is easily dominated or intimidated.
Artist: Maurice Sand. Masques et bouffons (Comedie Italienne). Paris, Michel Levy Freres, 1860

Artist: Maurice Sand. Masques et bouffons (Comedie Italienne). Paris, Michel Levy Freres, 1860

I stumbled across the oldest of these three words in the midst of reading Crime and Punishment. (I’m now 3/4 done!) Raskolnikov is verbally sparring with Porfiry Petrovitch, a police detective, and in a moment of frustration –

“You are lying,” roared Raskolnikov without restraint, “you lie, you damned punchinello!”

I’m curious as to whether this was in the Russian, as well, or if the translator had to choose this to describe a different word. This Italian puppet (depicted above) from the 1660s is the precedent to the more commonly known Punch (of Punch and Judy).

Pun·chi·nel·lo (noun)

  • a grotesque or absurd chief character in a puppet show
    of Italian origin: the prototype of Punch.
  • any similarly grotesque or absurd person or thing.

Apparently this puppet character is known for being crafty and defending himself by pretending to be too stupid to understand what’s happening. An intriguing choice for name-calling on Raskolnikov’s part; I don’t yet know if it will prove true of the detective, but it might.

have you come across any good words in your reading lately?

» Don’t miss previous {word wednesday} posts: Saints and MilksopsDo you funk fluffles?MerryWords from The HobbitBequeathAugury; Pluck & Quiddity.

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About bet

Bet Mercer is a poet-photographer who writes at Gimme Some Reads and Everyday Poetry. She loves quotes, reading her favourite books over again, great conversation, laughter, trees, films, and travelling the world. Follow along with Bet on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Etsy and Google+.

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4 thoughts on “No Name-calling Here, Mr. Punchinello

  1. I think they recently used namby-pamby on Downton Abbey! :)

    But milque-toast is new to me. Crazy!

    - Ali | Gimme Some Oven

  2. It’s not related to your post, but I just ran across the word “coterminous” in CS Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. It means, “Having the same boundaries or extent in space, time, or meaning.” Yea new old words!

    - Amanda L