The Free Online Dictionary defines a snollygoster as ‘one, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than by consistent, respectable principles’.
An American journalist of the 1890s was more precise saying that a snollygoster is: ‘A fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy’.
Sadly, he didn’t bother to explain exactly what he meant by either talknophical or assumnacy, but I suspect that it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
I should stress at this point that despite the events of this week, I have no particular politician in mind – well perhaps one – it’s just that snollygoster is such a wonderful word to describe almost anyone who aspires to the political class.
Its etymology is uncertain, although Wiktionary says it is; ’19th century American English. Possibly from snallygaster, a mythical beast that preys on poultry and children, possibly from Pennsylvania Dutch schnelle geeschter, from German schnell, quick + geist, spirit.’
It came my way via The Horologicon by Mark Forsyth which I’ve just started reading and I am enjoying immensely. Like his previous book, The Etymologicon, it is both enlightening and wittily written.
By way of a taster, below is a video from TED.com of the author explaining more about snollygoster and other political speak.