Saturday, January 23, 2021

'Who Could Give the Looby Such Airs?'

At least two languages, Yiddish and English, and presumably others, supply us with a rich lode of words for foolish, clownish, soft-headed, dangerously maladroit people. Some of the Yiddish has migrated into English – nebekh, schlub, shlemiel and shlimazel – creating a vast glossary of cretinousness. It’s no surprise, of course, as supply will always meet demand, given sufficient time. 

Jonathan Swift contributes to the word-stock with looby, which Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary defines as “a lubber; a clumsy clown.” The OED gives: “a lazy hulking fellow; a lout; an awkward, stupid, clownish person.” I found it in Swift’s poem “Traulus” (1730):


“Let me now the vices trace,

From the father’s scoundrel race.

Who could give the looby such airs?

Were they masons, were they butchers?”


Swift’s target is the Irish politician Viscount Allen (1685–1742), who had formerly represented Kildare County in the Irish House of Commons. The Corporation of Dublin had awarded Swift a gold box, which Lord Allen had protested. According to Pat Rogers, editor of Swift's Complete Poems (Yale University Press, 1983), the poem’s title is Greek for lisping. Allen reportedly stammered. The same year as “Taulus,” Swift wrote “Vindication of His Excellency John, Lord Carteret.” Again, he attacks Allen, and while doing so vindicates his own practice as a surgeon/satirist:


“I am afraid lest such a Practitioner, with a Body so open, so foul, and so full of Sores, may fall under the Resentment of an incensed political Surgeon, who is not in much Renown for his Mercy upon great Provocation: Who, without waiting for his Death, will flay and dissect him alive; and to the View of Mankind, lay open all the disordered Cells of his Brain, the Venom of his Tongue, the Corruption of his Heart, and Spots and Flatuses of his Spleen — and all this for Three-Pence.”


Throughout his work, Swift likens satirical wit to a scalpel or razor. In the poem, he mocks Allen for his low birth (some of his forebears were butchers) and his speech defect:


“Hence he learnt the Butcher’s Guile,

How to cut a Throat and smile:

Like a Butcher Doom’d for Life,

In his Mouth to wear his Knife.”


Compared to Swift, today’s pundits and "political Surgeon[s]" are creampuffs.

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