grammarIn all the ink spilled this week over Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, my favorite line comes from Gene Weingarten in an open letter to his new boss.

As the editor of the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine, Weingarten and his colleagues refused to give front page coverage to the winners of the Silver Knight award. Not because they were not worthy recipients, but because the event was run and financed by Knight-Ridder, the paper’s corporate owner. Highlighting the event was the sort of uncritical self-promotion that the writers and editors of the magazine did not want to encourage. Their vision was a grittier, independent paper and “being a corporate suckup toady lickspittle didn’t fit in with our plans,” he tells Bezos. Turns out, one of the Silver Knight winners that year was none other than Jeff Bezos. Score one for the new owner.

Interesting as that tidbit was, what got my attention was the word lickspittle. I don’t recall hearing or seeing that word before. While it was clear from the context that Weingarten wasn’t flattering the corporate owners, I headed to my online dictionaries to determine the precise meaning of the word.

Lickspittle is a compound word, combining two Old English words — lick and spittle, neither particularly attractive activities. Spittle brings to mind the mixture of saliva and tobacco that cowboys are prone to hack up into – what else – a spittoon. Both meanings are familiar: lick—to run the tongue over and spittle — a derivation of spit. But combine the two and you have one of many variations of a derogatory term for someone who flatters those in authority. In elementary school we knew him/her as a brownnoser or an apple polisher. As an adult you might choose a less euphemistic term: Weingarten’s suckup, or sycophant, toady, lackey, or now that you know what it means — a lickspittle. The Free Dictionary calls a lickspittle a flattering or servile person. Servile – of or befitting a slave – captures the idea of someone bowing and scraping to the master. The subordinate who feels the need to flatter his/her superiors is in a form of bondage just as much as a slave is.

Lick or to lick also carries the idea of licking something into shape. Its original reference was to an animal licking its offspring. For many years there was a myth that bears were born without shape and that the parents licked their offspring until they acquired the proper ursine form. Parents everywhere are still trying to lick their children into shape, but have presumably discovered more acceptable means – though a tongue-lashing now and then may be in order.

A later meaning, of Scottish origin, identifies lick as a small portion. This gave way to the American colloquial use of lick as a place, specifically a place where an animal goes to lick salt or a salt lick. Guitar players know another meaning of lick — a short musical figure or solo — a contribution from the 1920s jazz scene.

Used as a verb, lick means to beat (as in battle) defeat or annihilate. I imagine that’s the kind of abuse Timex had in mind when they adopted the slogan, “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” to tout the sturdiness and longevity of their wristwatches. It’s probably the same kind of beating we’d like to give a lickspittler.

You can find more expressions and idioms using lick at The Free Dictionary.

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