That Damned Elusive Skallewagg

Nathaniel Sharpe nts at BETHLEHEMBOOKS.COM
Mon Jan 7 17:39:02 UTC 2013

<Happy Monday to you all!>

<In my genealogical research, I came across a newspaper article in 1836
calling an ancestor of mine a "Skallewagg." This piqued my interest and
I branched out into the less-familiar discipline of etymology. Here is
what I found, beginning with this query sent to a New York magazine...>

*1863, The Historical Magazine, Volume 7, New York, NY, "Queries, April
1863," page 130*
SKALLYWAG. - Bartlett, in his Dictionary of Americanisms, gives the
definition of this word, but not its derivation. I presume it is only
another form of scaley wag. But where did it originate?

<A very good question! Unfortunately, when I searched the magazine's
available archives, I did not find any published answer. But let's see
what Barlett has to say.>

*1859, Dictionary of Americanisms by John Russell Bartlett, Little,
Brown & Comp., Trübner & Comp., 2nd ed, Page 382*
SCALLAWAG. A scamp; a scapegrace. A scallawag has been defined to be,
"like many other wags, a compound of loafer, blackguard, and scamp."

Dr. Collier has been showing his model artists here, and the mean
skallewag left without paying the printer. - Buffalo Courier.
You good-for-nothin' young scallawag, is that the way you take care of
that poor dear boy, to let him fall in the pond. -S. Slick, Human Nature
That scallawag of a fellow ought to be kicked out of all decent society.
-Western Sketches

<I couldn't find Bartlett's references but I stumbled on what could be
the original source of his definition in a newspaper clipping from the
previous year.>

*Monday, October 4, 1858 Paper: New York Herald-Tribune (New York, NY)
Volume: XVIII Issue: 5445 Page: 6, 'WHAT IS A "SCALLAWAG?'*
To the Editor of the N. Y. Tribune.

Sir: Mr. John Livingston, in his recent letter to you in reply to a
spicy communication reflecting on him and his "list of reliable
lawyers," and copied by you in your issue of August 21, 1858, styles the
author a "scallawag."
Having hunted in vain in the various dictionaries, and being desirous to
find out the true meaning of this word, application is respectfully made
to you to furnish the desired information; and if you are unable to do
so, then please publish this, and perhaps Mr. Livingston may enlighten.
Sept. 20, 1858 READERS.

Answer.-- A "scallawag," like many another wag, is a compound of loafer,
blackguard and scamp. We believe Mr. Livingston used the term according
to its accepted meaning.

<A year earlier and in the same publication I found the term used in
relation to cattle.>

*Thursday, July 16, 1857 Paper: New York Herald-Tribune (New York, NY)
Volume: XVII Issue: 5066 Page: 8, "Cattle Market Report"*
...The whole system is as rotten as some of the livers of scallawag
cattle that scallawag butchers sell scallawag people to eat for food,
and swell the lists of weekly deaths. ... It is cheat all around from
farmer to consumer.

<These Cattle Market Reports were published weekly by Solon Robinson who
may have been the propagator of the term being applied to undersized
livestock. The influence his reports had is evident below.>

*Friday, Feb 18, 1859, Brockport Republican (Brockport, NY) "Nominating
Town Officers"*
Persons who participate in making the nominations and then bolt because
they or their friends have not been nominated, are what the New York
Tribune in its cattle report terms "scalawags," and the sooner the party
is freed from such burdensome stock, the sooner it will be on the road
to prosperity.

<Throughout the mid-to-late '50s Robinson used this term quite often in
cases like "scallawag pigs," or "miserable scallawags.">

*Thursday, Feb 19, 1857 Paper: New York Herald-Tribune (New York, NY)
Page: 8, "Cattle Market Report"*
On the other hand, there are scarcely any of that old-fashioned kind for
which we had several years ago to invent the term of reproach now so
commonly known as "scallawag," which means an animal wholly unfit for
the butcher.

<That's right, Robinson not only defines the word but even seems to
claim credit for its coinage! Before taking him at his word however, let
us look at some other instances from "several years ago.">

*Thursday, March 8, 1855 Paper: New York Herald-Tribune (New York, NY)
Page: 8 Column 4, "Cattle Market Report"*
The term "scallawag" is a provincialism that means everything that is
mean. It should be applied to the owners who are mean enough to send
Cattle here too mean to keep at home.
Is there no way to stop this trade in live carrion meat?

<Robinson's definition is much broader here, and it certainly sounds
like he is making no claim to ownership.>

*Thursday, October 24, 1854 Paper: New York Herald-Tribune (New York,
NY) Page: 8 Column 3, "Cattle Market Report"*
The truth is that the number of miserable "scallawags" is so great, that
like the bad portion of the biped race, they tend to drag down all above
themselves to their own level.

<The above is the earliest instance of Scalawag I found in the
Robinson's reports. Note the apostrophes which he later dropped. I found
two other instances in 1854, which I won't quote here, one from the
Herald-Tribune and the other from the Knickerbocker Magazine, that both
use apostrophes as well.>

*Jan-Jun 1850, Sartain's union magazine of literature and art, Volume 6,
Philadelphia, PA, By John Sartain, Page 67, "The Doctor's Third
Patient," by Rev. John Todd, D.D.*
Tell the meaching, cowardly, ignorant rantum-scantum scaliwag that I
won't, that's all!

<I'm not sure if that quote has any academic value, but it was too good
to pass up! The following is the earliest official definition of the word.>

*1848, Dictionary of Americanisms:A glossary of words and phrases,
usually regarded as peculiar to the United States (Google eBook),
Bartlett and Welford, 1st ed, PAGES 284-285*
SCALAWAG. A favorite epithet in western New York for a mean fellow; a

<This implies that less than 200 years ago this "provincialism" was
still uncommon in all but a small corner of the English-speaking world.>

*Tuesday, January 12, 1848, The Daily Courier (Buffalo, NY)*
One of our County Contemporaries wishes everybody a happy new year,
except a couple of "scalawag" subscribers, who have taken his paper for
more than a year, and now refuse to take it from the post-office, after
been politely solicited to pay up. Such men, he says, "don't deserve
happiness either in this world or the next."

<This excerpt, coming from western New York, supports Bartlett's

*September 24, 1848, Onondaga Gazette (Baldwindsville, NY) "One Dollar a
Year, Invariably in Advance, Walk up and Settle"*
Louis Fontain, also of Washington... is, as near as we can learn, a poor
miserable skallywag, at best. ... We wouldn't mind the original bill so
much, however, if the scoundrel hadn't had the impudence to "elect" us
for ten cents on his straw promise.

<Once again, an editor filled with righteous and eloquent indignation.
And yes, the town of Baldwinsville is also located in the western half
of the state.>

*Tuesday, September 12, 1848, The Daily Courier (Buffalo, NY)*
NED BUNTLINE asks us the definition of the word "skallewag." It means a
'tuppeny,' conceited, seedy, individual who is well described by
"Ollapod," thus:-- "an utmost wretch, a multitudinous puppy, lacking not
urbanity merely but also politeness likewise."

<Back to Buffalo and this time with a pre-Bartlett definition! After
some searching I was able to trace the colorful quote to a 1835 article
written by Willis Gaylord Clark under the pen name "Ollapod" and
published in the Knickerbocker, but could find no instance of the word
in that context (or anywhere in the available Knickerbocker archives).
Also of note is that the above three instances of Scalawag, while
published in the space of only nine months, all exhibit their own unique

*Tuesday, November 26, 1844; Vermont Gazette (Bennington, VT), Volume
15; Issue 48; Page 2; Col. 5. "All the Decency"*
As the procession passed they were insulted...denouncing the democrats
as a "gang of ragmuffins," a "loco foco rabble," a "band of scalawags,"
"Irish vagabonds," "poor loafers," "drunken rowdies,"...

<The above usage was antedated on this e-mail list in 2009 by Stephen
Goranson and is the only pre-1850 instance I found not published in New
York State.>

*Thursday, August 31, 1843 Paper: Albany Evening Journal (Albany, NY)
Volume: 14 Issue: 4087 Page: 2, "Common Council Wednesday August 30"*
Mr. McKnight has sympathy for Mr. Cushman, but he has sympathy also for
that class which he termed "scalliwags." That class were subjected to
the loss, not only of their capital, but their victuals. He knew one
contractor who had been kept weeks in idleness, with all his laborers
and his horse, merely because the surveyor did not choose to furnish the
necessary grade stakes. And in the mean time, the families of the men
were suffering for the necessities of life.

<The council seems to be discussing the possible firing of city surveyor
Cushman. It is interesting that McKnight feels the need to define his
term and that the sense he gives does not sound exclusively derogatory.
The next instance, published only 19 days after the last, is distinctive
in its suffix but more common in regards to its apparent sense.>

*September 19, 1843 Paper: Albany Evening Journal (Albany, NY) Volume:
14 Issue: 4103 Page: 2, "Common Council Sept. 30"*
By Mr. Teall, in favor of the payment of the account of Horace Pierce,
for work done on Hamilton street.
Mr Chambers thought there was some scalawagism about this business.
So did Ald. Downing, when the report was laid on the table on motion of
Mr. McKnight.

*January 10, 1843 Paper: ONEIDA WHIG (Utica, NY) Page 3, "A Chapter
About Loafers" by John W. Stafford*
A man who sits in a bar-room all day and all night, talking politics
with all who he can get to listen to him, when he makes you think that
he had better go home, chalk his collar and black his shoes, is not a
loafer; he is a schallawag.

<The above is from an article comparing the admirable Loafers to similar
but inferior types such as Green-Horns and Puppies. If you count
McKnight's explanation, this is our third pre-Barlett definition!>

<The next earliest instances are found in the county Black List of
Batavia, a township in western New York (surprise, surprise!). This list
was begun around 1830 by the local merchants of Genesee County in order
to publicly denounce absconding debtors. It was published weekly in the
county newspapers and consisted of about 30 names, the number
fluctuating as names were removed and added.>

<The most recent appearance of Scalawag in the Black List was on
September 06 1836 in Batavia's Republican Advocate, where a set of eight
names is followed by the label "---/all Skallewaggs/." On that same list
is my ancestor John W. Putman, also tagged with "---/Skallewagg/."
However, while Putman was on the list since 1834, the first time he was
called that name was not until March 8, 1836. Before that the honor
belonged to the man below him on the list, Abial Hawkins (apparently the
epithet switched to Putman through a simple typesetting error). Hawkins'
named was added to the list in 1834, between August 5 and November 18.

*November 18, 1834, Republican Advocate (Batavia, NY) Page 4, Column 2,
"Absconding Debtors"*
The following persons are generally supposed to have gone off without
intention of returning.
James O. Leach, Batavia---Black-Leg and Knight of the Pressboard and
John W. Putman, Batavia.
Harvy Godfrey, Stafford.
Abial Hakwins, Batavia.---/Skallewagg/

<In another Batavian newspaper, the Spirit of the Times, Hawkins' name
appears with the label "Skallewag to Michigan." Most Black List entries
noted where the person was from, while some also specified where they
had run off to. I do not know why the two versions entries differ in
spelling and content.>

<And last of all is the earliest appearance of Scalawag I could find,
and as far as I know the earliest instance yet on record.>

*Wednesday, April 11, 1832, Ithaca Chronicle (Ithaca, NY) No. 7, Vol. 3,
Page 3, Column 3, "Town Meetings"*
NIAGARA COUNTY. ---Cambria, Royalton, Lewiston, Newfane, and Porter, are
antimasonic.---Hartland, Wilson and Lockport, masonic, the latter by an
average majority of 4 votes, under the designation of the /scalliwag/
ticket, in support of which the Jackson and Clay men with some
disaffected antimasons, united.

<I must admit that after all those k's and double-g's, this variation
does seem a bit tame. The report it appears in is one of many detailing
the town election results in New York's counties. A week later the
Independence of Poughkeepsie, NY quoted this report with word for word
accuracy but misspelled /scalliwag/ as /scailiwag/. I'm not even sure
exactly what sense the word has in this context, and feel this instance
raises more questions than it answers.>

<So there you go. I have a few more things I can add concerning the
history of Scalawag, but this may be plenty to chew on for the moment.
Your comments and/or advice are very welcome!>

---Nathaniel Sharpe

The American Dialect Society -

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