Snollygoster: A shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician. American dialect and slang. First print appearance in 1846, in the Frankfort (Kentucky) Commonwealth: “Now here I am a rale propelling, double revolving locomotive Snolly Goster, ready to attack anything.” (Source: Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang. “Rale” is dialect for “real.”)
Snollygoster was popularized “almost singlehandedly” by a Georgia Democrat, H. J. W. Ham, writes Rosemarie Ostler in her 2011 book Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurillous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics.
[Ham] traveled around the country during the 1890s with a stump speech titled “The Snollygoster in Politics.” Ham claimed to have first heard the word during an 1848 political debate. He defined a snollygoster as a “place-hunting demagogue” or a “political hypocrite.” The Columbus Dispatch for October 28, 1895, captures the spirit of the word with this more elaborate definition: “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 assumnancy.”
The origin of snollygoster is unknown. It may come from German schnelle geister (“quick spirit”), writes Ostler, “but extravagant nonsense words such as lollapalooza and splendiferous were popular during the nineteenth century. Snollygoster may be part of this trend.” Snallygaster, which first appeared in 1940 as the name of a mythical dragonlike monster found only in Maryland, is probably unrelated to the political epithet unless both come from schnelle geister. In the 1960s the beverage brand Mountain Dew invented a drink called the snallygaster, made of vanilla ice cream and Mountain Dew.
Snollygoster faded into obscurity around World War I, then resurfaced during President Harry S. Truman’s 1952 reelection campaign. In a memoir, Ken Hechler. a White House assistant during Truman’s presidency, tells about a speech Truman gave at the Parkersburg, West Virginia, railroad station. The president asked Hechler for a Bible, then quickly found a passage about the “hypocrites” who “love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” Hechler goes on:
Then he added that some Republican campaign orators like John Foster Dulles were posing as self-righteous defenders of the captive peoples of Eastern Europe. He read the Bible passage to his Parkersburg audience, adding that his grandfather used to tell him that when you heard someone praying loudly in public, “you had better go home and lock your smokehouse.” Then Truman sent reporters scurrying to their dictionaries when he denounced Republican “snollygosters.” He turned to the puzzled press corps, chewing their pencils at trainside, and quipped, “Better look that word up, it’s a good one.”
For more on presidential neologisms—including neologize, whose invention is attributed to Thomas Jefferson—see Paul Dickson’s recently published Words from the White House. Dickson was interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition yesterday; you can listen to the interview or read a summary here.