Thursday, January 21, 2016

`As Jacketed Up as a Flunkey'

A useful and once common word I no longer hear: flunkey. For Americans of my parents’ generation, who endured the Great Depression and World War II, it was a non-obscenity safely used in polite company to describe bureaucrats and sycophants of any species. It implied obsequiousness, groveling spinelessness and general worthlessness. Lickspittle and toady come to mind. A contemporary near-synonym also comes to mind, but this is a family-friendly blog and I have to think of the kiddies. Flunkey was most frequently used by working-class people. It drips chip-on-the-shoulder egalitarianism and resentment of social pretentions. Less offensive synonyms today are “executive assistant” and “aide.”

Flunkey dates from the eighteenth century and originally referred to a footman or “servant in livery.” The new meaning emerged in the following century: “applied contemptuously to a person who behaves obsequiously to persons above him in rank or position; a ‘lackey’, toady, snob [OED].” Thackeray used it in The Newcomes (1855): “You young flunkeys of the aristocracy.” In Forgotten English (William Morrow, 1997), Jeffrey Kacirk observes: “As late as the 1830s and 1840s, flunkey developed its modern pejorative meaning from college slang for an academic failure or one who slavishly obeyed another.” From Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) I learned an Irish synonym for flunkey: “suck.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that flunkeys are proliferating, particularly in government offices and on university campuses. I resolved to revive flunkey (or flunky) after coming upon it twice in a single week. See the fifth stanza of Karl Shapiro’s “Haircut” (1942):

“I desire the pants of a bear, the nap of a monkey
Which trousers of friction have blighted down to my skin.
I am bare as a tusk, as jacketed up as a flunkey,
With the chest of a moth-eaten camel growing within.”

And again in Joseph Epstein’s “The Awkward Genius of Theodore Dreiser” (Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, 1991):

“Afterward he returned to Chicago, where he took up a number of flunky jobs—driving a laundry truck, collecting installment payments for a furniture company—and then, sensing a dead end to all such jobs, landed part-time work as a reporter on a Chicago paper called the Daily Globe.”

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