I’m not betraying any secrets when I tell you that TURNCOAT was the pangram in Sunday’s New York Times online Spelling Bee. (A pangram is a word that contains all the letters in a given alphabet, in this case A, C, N, O, R, T, and U.)
You’ll need to find 43 words in this hive to achieve the coveted “Queen Bee” status. Words must contain at least four letters, one of which must be the central letter. Letters may be re-used in a word.
Turncoat was also on the minds of some people who followed the Senate vote on Saturday in Donald J. Trump’s second impeachment trial. Although the tally fell short of the 67 votes needed to convict the ex-president, seven Republican senators did break ranks to vote with their Democratic colleagues. “Seven Turncoats” was the finger-pointing headline in American Thinker, a conservative daily online magazine. (The piece also calls the aye-voting senators “treasonous faux Republicans” and asserts that “Trump was a truly great president” and also “the most revered president since Reagan”—in case you had any confusion about where they’re coming from.)
What is a turncoat? Here’s a good explanation from Vocabulary.com:
A turncoat is a traitor. … Turncoat comes from the ancient practice of wearing a badge or pin on one's coat signifying the party or leader you supported. By “turning your coat” you quite literally hid your allegiance to others. Often used interchangeably with defector, and while they are similar they are not quite the same. Turncoat is worse: it implies no possibility of any good or honest motive. Defector can at least sometimes have a neutral or even positive implication.
The first appearance of the noun turncoat in print was in 1570, before its spelling (or any other English spelling) had been standardized: “I will beleue none of you all, for you be turne coates, and chaungelinges, and be wauering minded.” It appeared as an adjective the following year: “Hee peynteth out more expressely theire turnecote craftynesse.”
Here’s what I love about turncoat: It’s a special sort of word, a member of a category called agentive and instrumental exocentric verb-noun compounds. Or, if you prefer, cutthroat compounds.
Notorious American turncoat Benedict Arnold is literally wearing a turned coat—British red on one side, Colonial blue on the other—on the cover of this 2018 history by Stephen Brumwell. There have been at least eight other books with the title Turncoat or The Turncoat, not to mention an interesting-sounding scholarly work with the title Advertising in the 1960s: Turncoats, Traditionalists, and Waste-Makers in America’s Turbulent Decade.
Cutthroat compound is the memorable name invented by Brianne Hughes, aka Encyclopedia Briannica, a linguist and editor in the Bay Area who has been collecting and classifying these amusing words for close to a decade. (Cutthroat, as you’ve probably surmised, is one of them.) Brianne wrote her master’s thesis in 2012 on them; its title is, aptly for my purposes this week, “From Turncoats to Backstabbers: How Headedness and Word Order Determine the Productivity of Agentive and Instrumental Compounds in English.”
And she has kept on collecting them ever since, scouring surname databases (Shakespeare is a cutthroat compound), slang dictionaries, and glossaries of criminals’ cant. Her list now comprises about 1,400 cutthroats in the history of English from 1016 to 2020. “About 750 of them refer to people, mostly insults,” she told me. (The others describe “games, plants, animals, food, drink, and tools.”) The 16th and 17th centuries were huge for cutthroat-compounding, but only about 30 of those historical coinages are commonly used in modern English, including breakfast, breakwater, spendthrift, daredevil, killjoy, and spoilsport.
“English cutthroats are rare but memorable because they can encapsulate an entire person by their one defining action,” Brianne says. “Usually, it’s a frequently repeated action that gets across the main thrust in the lives of incompetent professionals (spoil-paper, from 1610, is a bad writer), greedy townsfolk (nip-farthing, from 1566, is a miser), and gluttonous barflies (suckbottle, 1652, is a drunk).”
Cutthroat-compound rules are simple: “A cutthroat is always a verb plus a noun. It names by describing the essential action of a person or thing.” A scarecrow scares crows; a pickpocket picks pockets. A turncoat isn’t a type of coat, the way a tugboat is a type of boat; it’s a type of person.
Brianne encourages everyone to try creating cutthroat compounds. She herself created an excellent synonym for “fender-bender”: crumple-bumper.
To learn more, watch Brianne’s 2013 presentation at Ignite Portland (5 minutes) and her 2016 Odd Salon presentation (18 minutes), which explores the naughtier cutthroat compounds, including quake-buttock and shit-breech.