A Unique Scalawag Origin Story

Neal Whitman nwhitman at AMERITECH.NET
Tue Jan 8 23:57:22 UTC 2013

My advice is, see if Ben Zimmer might want to write about it in his Word Routes or Boston Globe columns. He often writes about topics that come up on this list, especially new etymological discoveries.


On Jan 8, 2013, at 4:40 PM, Nathaniel Sharpe <nts at BETHLEHEMBOOKS.COM> wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Nathaniel Sharpe <nts at BETHLEHEMBOOKS.COM>
> Subject:      A Unique Scalawag Origin Story
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> I was very excited to learn yesterday that my research has turned out to
> be new information. Has anyone had any more thoughts on how these new
> instances may influence the current understanding of Scalawag's etymology?
> I would also be grateful for some guidance as to where to go from here,
> especially in regards to submitting my antedating to the OED.
> The following excerpt is from a much later date, but quite fascinating:
> *Friday, September 11, 1885 Progressive Batavian (Batavia, NY) page 2,
> column 3, "Recollections and Reminiscences of Prominent Men in Genesee
> County, by an Old Resident."*
> Jas. Brisbane, an eccentric and able man, was one of the first settlers
> in the country, coming into the county on or about the time of the
> survey of the Holland Land Purchase�and, if my memory serves me right,
> had something to do with it. His keen observation of the situation�of
> the settlement and improvement of that new country�ended in the
> accumulation of a large estate. ....
> Some interesting anecdotes are told of Mr. Brisbane. He was the coiner
> of the word �skalawag,� but spelled it with double letters. In
> consequence of the word being used against an absconding debtor who was
> a dissipated butcher in Batavia, it became a matter to be decided by the
> courts as to what was the meaning, Brisbane having been sued for
> slander. Moses B. Powers, Brisbane's lawyer, turned out to be just the
> man to define the word. He swore before the Court that the meaning of
> the word �skalawag� was a �gentlemanly butcher, retired from business;�
> and the defendant gained the case.
> <This is the only reference I've found that links James Brisbane to the
> word Scalawag. That part of the story may be purely fictional, but let's
> take a look at what we do know.>
> *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.
> ...
> Abial Hakwins, Batavia.---Skallewagg
> ...
> <Well there is the absconding debtor himself as well as the "double letters.">
> *November 16, 1830, Spirit of the Times (Batavia, NY) Page 3, Column 4,
> The Subscriber will pay Cash for any quantity of Hides delivered at his SLAUGHTER HOUSE...
> <Another fact lines up. The earliest Skallewagg was also a local butcher.>
> *February 19, 1839, Livingston Register (Geneseo, NY) Page 3, "Died"*
> In Batavia, on the 30^th  of January last, Moses B. Powers, Esq.,  Attorney at Law, aged 38
> years.
> <We still don't know if Powers was Brisbane's lawyer but a Batavia lawyer he was nonetheless.>
> **Tuesday June 13, 1851* Spirit of the Times (Batavia, NY) Page 2, "Death if James Brisbane, Esq."*
> We have to announce the death of James Brisbane, Esq., which took place at his residence in this Village, on Thursday last, the 29^th  ult., at the age of 74 years, 7 months, and 17 days. [Brisbane brought supplies to men surveying Holland Land Purchase in 1798. He settled in Batavia in 1802, and became first store owner and first postmaster. He left for two years to New York City where he was in the publishing business for awhile. Because of �intimate relations� with the Holland Land Company Brisbane was able to purchase at low prices the company's most valuable land.] �In this way he laid the foundation to a colossal fortune. In private character, Mr. Brisbane carried peculiarity to the verge of eccentricity. In his manner to strangers , he was cold, often repulsive, but in his intercourse with friends, was affable, polite and entertaining. Possessed of a most retentive memory he was referred to to decide any disputed point, and was rarely at fault. His early life !
 had been!
>  so full of incident that an interview with him was at all times highly interesting, and his daily associates recur, with feelings of gratification, to hours spent at his social board, where time glided imperceptibly away under the influence of his genial and pleasant conversation. Full of anecdote, an agreeable/ //raconteur /and a wonderful observer, he never failed to interest his hearers.
> <So what do you think? Could it be that this wealthy raconteur was in fact the coiner of Scalawag? Also, assuming that Mr. Powers did in fact commit perjury, what was Brisbane's intended sense? Or did it spring fully-grown from his eccentric and peculiar mind?>
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