September 25, 2017
You can’t spell “Donald Trump” without D-O-T-A-R-D
by Ryan Harrington
Name-calling is an integral part of politics. I’m proud to say that we here at MobyLives are not above it. We’ve called our sitting president a number of naughty things (the only one I can repeat and still kiss my mother with this mouth is “not a literary man”).
Last Tuesday, Donald Trump—who, admittedly, is pretty good at this name-calling business—failed to land a punch when he called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “Rocketman” at the United Nations. I suppose it gains a little muscle when quoted in full: “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself.”
But I have to declare this round for Kim, who responded on Friday by calling Trump “a frightened dog” and a “gangster fond of playing with fire.” He also earned points for creativity by tossing in “dotard” — specifically, one of the “deranged US” variety.
Unsurprisingly, our old friends at Merriam-Webster are seeing a spike in searches for that obscure word. The dictionary defines it sterilely as “a person in his or her dotage,” but really finishes the job by defining “dotage” as “a state or period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise and alertness.” Oh damn. You got Kim Jong Owned, Mr. President.
Looking back through etymology–as Rachel Chason and J. Freedom du Lac did last week for the Washington Post—is hardly a balm for that burn. They write:
The word meant “imbecile” when it was first used in the 14th century and comes from the Middle English word “doten,” meaning “to dote,” according to Merriam-Webster.
It was used by Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales” and appeared numerous times in William Shakespeare’s work, including “The Merchant of Venice” and “King Lear.”
In the book “Shakespeare’s Insults: A Pragmatic Dictionary,” dotard is “linked to French radoter, which means to repeat things several times because one forgets.”
Merriam-Webster’s most searched list remains a an excellent index of our political discourse. Some of the words competing with “dotard” for the top spot include “federalist,” which Senator Lindsey Graham used to mean he was giving healthcare to the states (so here it functions as a euphemism for “exploding the whole program”); “carceral,” which the excellent labor writer Sarah Jaffe used in a much-shared tweet to explain that the rampant imprisonment of African-Americans in this country is a key tool of white supremacy; and “otherwise,” which Ivanka Trump misused (let’s give her the benefit of the doubt) in a tweet that almost made it sound like cuddling her nephew was actually the worst part about her day.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.