Thursday, January 28, 2021

'How Obsequious and Affable They Are'

The genus Careerist comes in many species. There’s the thug, the plotter, the thief. Most commonly observed is the ambitious sycophant, ass-kisser, hand-pumper, palm-greaser, brown-noser, deft complimenter and dispenser of favors, the ostentatiously volunteering, the toady and lick-spittle, the aw-shucks denier of praise, the transparent jellyfish of little substance. Removed from his native habitat, he turns helplessly gelatinous.


Think of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy as a field guide for identifying the many sub-species of careerist. Ambition, he recognizes, can be a virtue, but not when its pursuit is single-minded. He defines ambition as “a proud covetousness or a dry thirst of Honour, a great torture of the mind, composed of envy, pride and covetousness, a gallant madness, one defines it as a pleasant poison.” Burton suggests that careerists and their ilk are not contented people and seldom rest:


“For commonly they that like Sisyphus roll this restless stone of Ambition, are in a perpetual agony, still perplexed, semper taciti, tristesque recedunt [Lucretius: “they fall back continually, silent and sorrowful”], doubtful, timorous, suspicious, loath to offend in word or deed, still cogging and colloguing, embracing, capping, cringing, applauding, flattering, fleering, waiting at men’s doors with all affability, counterfeit honesty and humility.”


Much to consider here. The OED defines cogging as “to practice certain tricks in throwing dice.” Colloguing: “to speak fair, employ feigned flattery or blandishment; to gloze; to deal flatteringly or deceitfully with any one, in order to cajole him or curry favour with him.” Fleering: “to laugh or smile flatteringly or fawningly.” There are worse men than your commonplace careerist, though few are so annoying and deserving of contempt. Let’s face it: their strategy often works. Perhaps we’re merely envious. Burton goes on:


“It is a wonder to see how slavishly these kind of men subject themselves, when they are about a suit to every inferior person; what pains they will take, run, ride, cast, plot, countermine, protest and swear, vow, promise, what labours undergo, early up, down late; how obsequious and affable they are, how popular and courteous, how they grin and fleere upon every man they meet.”


Careerist is older than I expected. The OED’s first citation is from H.G. Wells’ 1910 novel The History of Mr. Polly: “He called him the ‘Chequered Careerist.’”

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