Some colleagues were trying the other day to raise the usual level of banter on Facebook. What is your word of the day, one of them asked? He offered "thronged", which must have cropped up at some time during his day, in conversation or reading, but struck me as an odd choice if the idea was to suggest something eccentric or obscure. But then, many years separate us and it is possible that he is unaware of a time when every other news report of a well-attended event would declare that people had thronged to the venue.
The first response to his question was more promising: snollygoster. It reminded me of It Pays To Increase Your Word Power, a feature of Reader's Digest in which even those with reasonably broad vocabularies find themselves stumped for some of the answers. A website I have come to enjoy, wordreference.com, was for once unable to offer direct help. It did, however, point in the direction of two other sites, Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com, and from the second of these (Merriam-Webster also being lost for this particular word) came the answer.
The Random House Dictionary, dictionary.com reported, listed snollygoster as a slang noun for a clever, unscrupulous person, dating from the 1850s but of uncertain origin. It was able to add more detail from a second source, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which said this unscrupulous character might well be a politician "guided by personal advantage rather than by consistent, respectable principles". Politicians everywhere will be wounded by the knowledge that one suggested origin was snallygaster, a mythical beast that reputedly preys on poultry and children.
One of the joys of the internet is that any search can lead off in so many directions. In fact, snollygoster attracts about 34,000 results and, in no time, I found the World Wide Words site run by an Oxford-educated author, Michael Quinion. He specialises in commentary on international use of English "from a British perspective", though I have no reason to suspect he may therefore be a long-lost brother.
He is, however, a diligent scholar. After pointing out that these days the word is hardly heard, he says it came to notice back in 1952 when President Harry S Truman used it, "either in ignorance or impishness", to describe a man born out of wedlock. Having reached Mr Quinion's site, I began to explore. He turned out to be the author of a book called Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths.
I knew a little about this, but was grateful for a longer explanation. Many people believe posh, meaning luxurious or upmarket, began life when affluent passengers sailing between Britain and India reserved cabins positioning them as Port Out, Starboard Home, ensuring the best access to sea breeze and shelter from the sun during the hottest stages of the journey. But Mr Quinion says P&O, which supposedly offered such tickets stamped with POSH to show their holders' privileged status, denies the term ever existed.
His own hunch is that the word developed from London street slang for money, noticed as early as 1830. "A shift in sense from 'money', to 'well off', and hence to 'upper class' is not too hard to imagine," he says. Before leaving Mr Quinion, I checked the equally erroneous, but once widespread, belief that news was also an acronym, for north, east, west and south - news coming from all points of the compass. In fact, he says it is merely the plural of new, which was a noun as well as an adjective as long ago as the ninth century.
In recognition of my enjoyment of an etymological odyssey that commenced with a simple request for words of the day, I must belatedly salute Facebook and assure it, in spite of earlier misgivings, that all is forgiven. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org