Back in the 19th and early 20th century, when politicians could be quite witty at times, even the fiercest of political rivals resisted the temptation to throw names at one another, preferring instead to inflict more telling cuts with a rapier-like wit. For example, Benjamin Disraeli’s dismissal of William Gladstone as a man who “has not a single redeeming defect”, or Winston Churchill’s description of Clement Atlee as “a modest man, who has much to be modest about”.
There may have been name-calling but it’s not documented. The insults that stand the test of time are the ones crafted with a bit of wit. Which suggests that when future generations look back on this era in politics, the record will be bare.
The one word that keeps cropping up is ‘buffoon’ – arguably because buffoons keep cropping up. The earliest recorded use of the word is from the mid 1500s, when it was adopted in English to mean a court jester. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther used it to describe Henry VIII and it seems to have stuck ever since as the mot juste for anyone in authority who behaves like a clown.
Which is a bit unfair on Gianluigi Buffon, the phenomenal Italian goalkeeper. Buffon is widely regarded as the best goalkeeper that ever lived; he made his Serie A debut at the age of just 17 (incredibly young for a goalkeeper) and went on to earn 176 international caps – 51 more than England’s most capped player, Peter Shilton – and win the World Cup. Yet his name means ‘buffoon’. Harsh. Especially as there have been, and still are, innumerable goalkeepers for whom that particular moniker would be absolutely appropriate.
When we acquired the word from the French, we turned their -on ending into the much more exciting -oon, a popular linguistic trend in England between the 15th and 17th centuries. From the same process we have cartoon, balloon, lagoon, cocoon, cartoon, doubloon, macaroon etc. Beautiful words that mostly apply to beautiful things… with one exception.