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Saturday, October 23, 2004

Etymology interlude

Yesterday’s post has apparently spawned a great deal of commentary among scholars of the late Colonial period and the early Republic.  Exceptionally learned reader Jay, for instance, writes in comments to ask, “Is that Madison quote the first known use of the term ‘wing-nut?’ It sounds like an expression Ben Franklin might have coined.” Good catch, Jay! Franklin is indeed usually credited with the earliest use of the term.  In 1774, after Prime Minister Lord North had personally denounced Franklin, saying that his “radical Whiggery . . . amounted to nothing less than treason to the Crown of England,” Franklin replied that “those who defend every last Act of this arrogant King George, no matter how incompetent or intolerable these be, are very like the Wing-Nuts of a Machine of shoddy conceit, that spin so furiously as to fly cleanly off their Handles.”

Franklin’s response sparked what most scholars call the “pamphlet wars between Whiggery and Wing-Nuttery.” In fact, even for some years after the British surrender at Yorktown it was common for American patriots to speak belittlingly of the “wing-nuttery” of their opponents-- who, for their part, tended to be authoritarian believers in Divine Right, astonishingly ignorant not only of King George’s positions on the issues (as was shown by a study conducted at the time by researchers in Maryland) but also of his obvious degeneration into madness.  After the “Era of Good Feelings” during Monroe’s presidency, the term fell into disuse until it was revived by “bloggers” in the early 21st century.

This has been an Etymology Interlude!  Regularly scheduled blogging will resume sooner or later.

Posted by Michael on 10/23 at 04:35 PM
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