WORD OF THE WEEK: toad-eater
(n.) someone who supports a liar, or helps propagate their untruths
Toads have long been considered poisonous. Not only that, but a few centuries ago they were held to be among the standard tools of witchcraft and black magic, a somewhat unfair reputation apparently derived from little more than their warty skin, and their love of dank, dark places. (If you’re expecting a “which brings us to Boris Johnson” at this point, you’ll have to wait.)
Even the Devil himself apparently had “three unclean spirits like frogs” on his coat of arms, and it seems that pretty much every generation of kids has grown up believing that even merely touching a toad will give you warts. (Spoiler alert: it can’t.)
But if that’s what people have long thought of toads in general, imagine what they once thought of eating one.
Yes, brace yourself. Hidden behind this week’s Word of the Week is a story so revolting that it even rivals—well, the current state of British politics.
The story goes that in the late Middle Ages, itinerant quacks and charlatan tradesmen would tour the village fairs selling a tonic-like concoction they claimed could act as an antidote to the notoriously poisonous toad. To help prove their point, planted in the surrounding crowd of gullible onlookers would be the quack’s assistant, who would be invited onto the stage and sportingly invited to test the quack’s claims out by dining on a (usually live) toad.
This the “toad-eater” would gamely do (or at least feign doing, while actually secreting the poor amphibian in his pocket) before collapsing to the floor in simulated agony, clutching his stomach, and feigning a slow and excruciating death.
Step forward, at this point, the itinerant quack—armed with his astonishing bottle of probably-actually-nothing-more-than-water Miracle Toad Cure™. The quack would offer his accomplice a draught of the tonic, and then stand back while the toad-eater did his thing—acting a swift and full recovery from the toad’s toxic effects, before rejoining the stupefied crowd of onlookers. The duo’s act now complete, all that would be left would be for the quack to take the crowd’s money, sell them countless bottles of his useless toad cure, and then split the money with his secret accomplice before moving on to the next town.
Quite where or when this ploy first emerged is a mystery, but there are enough references to carnival toad-eaters to know that this practice certainly took place. Even the great seventeenth-century diarist John Rous, for instance, records a toad-eater named William Utting way back in 1619—whom, he wrote, a local shopkeeper “had seen … eate a toade—nay two.”
So a toad-eater, originally at least, was quite literally that: someone who ate (or feigned eating) a live toad.
But given the toad-eater’s involvement in the quack’s money-making scheme, it wasn’t long before that literal meaning had developed, so that by the early 1700s and beyond the term toad-eater had come to be used of what the Oxford English Dictionary labels “the attendant of a charlatan.” And it’s that that brings us to this week’s Word of the Week.
Unfortunately, given the predicament the UK finds itself current in, it’s hard to decide for sure who is the quack, and who is the toad-eater. Hell, it’s even difficult to decide who—or, for that matter, what—the toad would be.
You could argue that Boris Johnson is the grand showman-cum-charlatan, selling the UK the benefits of his unpalatable No Deal Brexit, with the help of a choice cabinet of all-too-willing toad-eating accomplices. Alternatively, you could argue that Seamus Milne is the unscrupulous mastermind here, gamely employing Jeremy Corbyn into his latest ruse to sell—well, whatever Brexit standpoint Labour are taking this week.
But perhaps the best analogy here is Vote Leave architect Dominic Cummings—now, despite being unelected and currently in contempt of parliament, one of the most powerful figures behind the doors of Number 10.
We are told it is Cummings’ job to ensure that Brexit happens, do or die, by the end of October. To do so he’s pulling every trick he can, telling government advisors that he would consider everything from proroguing parliament to brazen-facedly ignoring the result of any no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson—and even only arranging a general election until after Halloween, by which time the UK would have crashed out of the EU by default.
So if Cummings is taking the role of the quack, and a No Deal Brexit the unpalatable cure-all he’s trying to sell us, who is the toad-eater himself, helping this itinerant trickster sell his unwanted wares? Well, all eyes fall on Boris Johnson himself—with news this week that despite being PM, according to the Guardian Tory MPs now fear Johnson “is becoming just a front for [Cummings’] ideological plans.”
Quite how long this unpleasant sideshow will go on for, however, remains to be seen.