• snollygoster •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: Snollygoster or snallygaster was originally the name of a monster that preyed on poultry and children—an odd combination to be sure. Today, however, it more often indicates a rotten person who is driven by greed and self-interest. I do have reports from New England, however, that this word is used in some areas up there to refer to terrible storms that hit the Eastern Seaboard. For sure this word always refers to something nasty.
Notes: There are no relatives of this word. The two spellings might reflect the possibility of both O and A representing the sound [ah]. This would make sense since snallygaster would have been the earlier spelling, when most Americans spoke with British accents. As US English developed, we would expect the spelling to change to snollygoster, which seems to have been the case.
In Play: I like this word as a term for a horrible storm but that sense seems to be narrowly limited to a small region in the US. More generally it refers to an amoral man: "That old snollygoster who runs this company just cut our lunch hour down to 20 minutes!" In the US those of us who use this word tend to focus it on ruthless politicians: "Those who complain about politicians today should recall the real snollygosters like New York's Boss Tweed back in the 19th century."
Word History: We only know for sure that snollygoster is a US dialectal creation that might possibly have come from Pennsylvania Dutch (German) schnelle geeschter "fast spirits, ghosts". This phrase is the equivalent of German schnelle Geister with the same meaning. German Geist "spirit, ghost" is a cousin of English ghost, and is found in two English borrowings from German, poltergeist "noisy ghost" and zeitgeist "spirit of the times." But this stem is rarely found outside the Germanic languages; it is like, well, a ghost of a word.
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