I thought it might be fun to take a word we hear often enough and consider its history. I’m reading An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, by Henry Wiencek. On page 157, Wiencek discusses being ruled with an “arbitrary sway” and how “that could turn a proud, independent man into a toady.”
I stopped reading at that point and wondered how in the world an amphibious term morphed into something derogatory. When I think of “toady,” other synonyms come to mind: boot licker; flunky; lackey; teacher’s pet; brown noser…the list goes on and on, and none of those terms are flattering.
Turns out we have to head back to the late 1500s to learn the answer to the riddle of how toads came to be viewed with derision. Back then, all toads were considered extremely poisonous in a “touch-them-and-die” kind of way, and trust a snake oil salesman to get on stage and come up with a way to exploit the public’s fear.
At markets and exhibitions, the unscrupulous salesman would have his assistant pretend to eat a toad. Horrified onlookers would gasp and cringe, certain that the hapless assistant was on a fast track to imminent doom.
But wait! The assistant might be gasping on the stage, clutching his throat and breathing his last, but the salesman had just the thing in his bag of tricks. Out came a bottle of snake oil, sold by the gallon to unsuspecting fairgoers, now assured that with a few gulps, their homeward journey was safe. No need to fear the gangs of toads leaping from behind trees to accost weary travelers! Whew!
The salesman’s toad-eating apprentice was called, aptly enough, a “toadeater.” Often, these assistants were young, and some were mentally challenged, which, at that time, meant they were objects of contempt, fit only for the lowest jobs. They served the needs of the snake oil salesman with their toad-eating behavior.
See where this went? Toadeaters were viewed with scorn, and over time, the term was shortened to toady, meaning anyone who served another with their behavior. Today, we consider a toady to be someone who sucks up, who behaves in a fawning manner. Not a good thing.
Thankfully, we’ve reached Toad Enlightenment, and the little critters no longer frighten the way they used to 500 years ago. I did a little research and learned that toads are prolific pest eaters, and their presence is desired by some gardeners. I even found a website that sells toad houses, little clay things that look like charming English cottages. Line up a bunch in your garden and start your own Toad Subdivision!
Just don’t be a toady.