A “snollygoster” is a political operative or candidate who uses cunning or ethically questionable behavior to achieve power.
The term snollygoster is traced back to 1846 by Merriam-Webster with a strong preference for the word among Southern politicians starting in the 1850s. Georgia legislator H.W.J. Ham is often credited with popularizing the term in the late 19th century. He used snollygoster in 1893 to describe fellow Georgians who had “an unquenchable thirst for office with neither the power to get it nor the ability to fill it.”
By the 20th century, there was a belief that snollygoster evolved from the mythical snallygaster. This creature was believed to roam Maryland in search of children to eat. Merriam-Webster dispelled this connection, however, noting that snallygaster was not found in publications until after snollygoster.
Google’s Ngram Viewer shows relatively low usage for the term in English publications from the late 19th century to the 1940s. A spike in usage occurred in the 1950s thanks to President Harry Truman’s application of snollygoster to his Republican opponents. He invoked the term in a 1952 speech in West Virginia to refer to politicians who use their religious background to gain political support.
Snollygoster remained a novelty to political observers through the early 20th century. Safire’s Political Dictionary revised between 1968 and 1993 included an entry for the term. Publisher William Safire used snollygoster in a 1980 article in The New York Times on the power of presidential words. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly used the term in his Word of the Day feature.
Merriam-Webster removed snollygoster from its Collegiate Dictionary in 2003 because it was considered an archaic term. The publication added the term again in 2017 due in part to O’Reilly’s invocation of the word in reference to Democratic politicians. The term has gained currency among those who want to show a deep knowledge of political history. WOSU, a public radio network in Ohio, has a weekly podcast called Snollygoster that covers politics in the Buckeye State. Snollygoster’s revival came from its unusual sound and the continued presence of figures who match the definition.
The Huffington Post (December 6, 2017): “Seriously, how much harder do we have to be hit on the head before we realize that this “snollygoster” destroys the essence of who we are as a people.”
Slinging Mud (2011): “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 New York Times (September 2, 1952): “President Truman revived an old American word today when he taunted the ‘Republican snollygosters.’”