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11 August 2015

Toad-eater

A few days ago, HaggardHawks tweeted this:
And, well, it’s all just a little too bizarre to leave unexplained... 

There’s an old language myth that claims toad-eater comes from the Spanish mi todita (literally “my little everything”), which is itself a diminutive of toda, the Spanish word for “all”. Todita, so the story goes, was once a jocular title used by well-to-do Spaniards for their closest and most servile assistants or aides, who were only too ready to help their masters out in whatever way necessary, hence the definition above. 

It’s a neat theory—but unfortunately it’s completely untrue. In fact, the true history of the toad-eater is much more interesting, much more literal, and considerably more revolting, than all that.

According to the OED, the earliest record we have of a toad-eater comes from a seventeenth-century diarist named John Rous. Rous kept a diary from 1625-43, during which time he was the Anglican vicar of the village of Santon Downham in Suffolk, England. He recorded a predictably eclectic mix of events from both home and abroad, ranging from the coronation of Charles I in 1625 (described as “very joyous to the well-affected, but to the Papists not very welcome”) to reports of a rebellion in Portugal, Spanish ships returning from the West Indies being attacked by Dutch pirates, and, inevitably, growing unrest across England in the lead-up to what would eventually become the Civil War.

Alongside all the headlines, however, Rous’s diary contains several accounts of local goings-on in and around his own parish—including, in 1629, this account of a conversation with a shopkeeper in the nearby village of Laxfield:
I inquired of him if William Utting the toade-eater … did not once keepe [i.e. stay] at Laxfield; he tould me yes, and said he had seen him eate a toade, nay two.
Rous goes on to explain how “the toade-eater” apparently went about his business:
The man in whose house he kept went to him and … tould him that a friend of his would give a groate [4 pence] to see him eate a toade (thus was the way to see it): he accepted the offer, and went and fetche in, from under blocks, ij toads … He swallowed them downe, but presently he cast them up into his hands, and after some pawse, “Nay,” sayeth he, “I will not loose my groate.” So taking that which came up last (saith he), “thou wentst in first before and shalte doe againe.” When both then were downe, his stomach held them, and he had his groate.
Seemingly, Utting somehow managed to swallow two toads whole (after having already vomited them up once), and thereby won himself the princely some of one groat—or just under £2 (or just over $3) in 2015. But how do we get from this fairly disgusting story to the considerably less disgusting meaning in the tweet above?

Well, back in Rous’s day, toads were widely believed to be incredibly poisonous. Not only that, but their warty skin, their fondness of dark, dank places, and their ability to survive both on land and in water led to an association with black magic and witchcraft; even the Devil’s coat of arms is traditionally said to be decorated with “three unclean spirits like frogs”. To even touch a toad was, frankly, to dice with death—and so to be able to eat one was quite some feat.

Can’t you two get a room?

Rous’s toad-eater, and the many more like him who worked the country fairs and fêtes of Georgian England, knew precisely that. They also presumably knew that toads—or, by any rate, the two species of toad native to Great Britain—aren’t really as poisonous as most people believed: they can secrete a foul-tasting “milk” from glands on their skin when disturbed that contains an impressive battery of unpleasant chemicals, but unless you’re an overly-inquisitive dog or cat, or unless you fully digest the toad and its toxic skin (which toad-eaters seldom did, opting instead to either rely or sleight of hand, or else regurgitate them later), the chances are you’ll escape unharmed. 

Nevertheless, if these toad-eaters could convince people that they were somehow immune to the toad’s toxicity—or, better yet, that they had invented some kind of all-curing antidote or medical procedure—then they could not only put on an impressive show, but make an equally impressive profit.

Based on this presumption, by the late 1600s, quack physicians and itinerant charlatans all across England had begun working with toad-eaters to come up with a brand new sting: in front of an enthralled (and presumably somewhat nauseated) crowd, they would have their assistant eat, or pretend to eat, a live toad, just as William Utting had. Although unharmed, the assistant would then promptly collapse to the floor in feigned agony, whereupon the quack could either make a great show of his miraculous healing powers, or else administer some kind of homemade concoction to his assistant, who would consequently stage an immediate and impressive recovery—leaving his quack associate to sell vials of their bogus cure-all to the assembled crowd.

The original seventeenth century “toad-eater”, ultimately, was nothing more than a con artist’s assistant, and it’s from there that the sense of “someone who corroborates a lie” came about. Over time, however, toad-eater came to be used more loosely for any assistant or subordinate, and in particular one who acts obsequiously or servilely and is only too happy to perform any duty required of him—no matter how unpleasant it might be. 



1 comment:
  1. In German we say "eine Kröte schlucken" (swallow a toad) if someone has to accept an unpleasant truth.

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