LICKSPITTLE: an apple-polisher, boot licker, suck-up


An article in the New York Times was commenting on the meeting of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church in South Africa was asked to comment on the issue that Pope Francis had refused to meet with them because the Dalai Lama would be there, and the Pope didn’t want to offend the Chinese by being seen with him.

In the context of the interview Archbishop Tutu was asked about his feelings about the new leadership in South Africa.  He is quoted as referring to them as “lickspittles.”    Never having heard the word before  I pursued it and found that it is a derogatory term meaning someone who bows and scrapes to someone to gain favor with them.   As noted above, other names for them are “apple-polishers, boot lickers, and suck-ups.”  Tutu was using a very British word which has, perhaps, some degree of more dignity to it than the others…not to  mention the more vulgar words that accompany the list of definitions.  Another word used in a more clinical sense is syncophant…one who embraces a more servile or dependent position to gain approval.  I’ll save that word for another post one of these days.

To be a lickspittle is to adhere to a concept from the 17th century in England where the word seems to have originated.  It is a combination of the two words, lick and spittle, making for a disgusting concept of someone who licks up the spittle (spit) of someone.  Another term the British use for this is to be toady.  Again, it is a term which is basically unknown in American English, but it is clear that it’s not a compliment to be called toady.

It seems as if the most common reference to lickspittle is in reference to journalists who lose their objectivity and become pawns of the government in power.  Some would say that some of the journalists who are assigned to the White House become so comfortable in the Brady Press Room that they will grovel to protect the Administration in order to protect their cushy jobs.  That certainly didn’t apply to the late Helen Thomas, who served there for several decades.  She was feisty, direct, and owed no allegiance to whomever was serving as President.  She just wanted the truth, no matter what it cost her.

In corporate life a lickspittle is quickly identified by the staff by their willingness to jump to the support of the management, no matter how ludicrous the management’s suggestions may be.  Most people in industry will tell you that the role brings about some benefits for a short time, but it’s only a matter of time before top management tires of the boot licking and replaces them with a new class of people willing to suck up to them.

A funny word, but not a funny outcome.


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