You know something’s amiss when American social media wax gleeful over a North Korean dictator’s chosen insult for the American president. Last week, Kim Jong-un’s choice of the word dotard to describe Donald Trump prompted a moment of confusion followed by a rush to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter feed had a field day.
Before we get to etymology, it’s worth observing some cultural background. On the one hand, Korean culture puts great emphasis on respect for one’s elders, for whom one uses a different “level of language.” On the other hand, North Korean officials have been imaginative in their insults toward U.S. leaders for some time. They’ve called Barack Obama “a monkey in a tropical forest,” Nikki Haley “a political prostitute,” and Trump a “frightened dog,” “a gangster,” “that mad guy,” and “bereft of reason.” Apparently, an elderly person who indulges in schoolyard taunts himself (“Rocket Man,” “nutjob”) loses his claim to any elevated level of address.
English speakers have not generally shown such great respect to the elderly. As early as 1430, John Lydgate had one of his animal characters, in “Horse, Goose and Sheep,” say “I trowe he be falle in Dotage” — dotage being the state of being intellectually impaired, generally through old age. But the noun form, dotard, apparently peaked during Shakespeare’s time, and its continuing decline has tracked the decline of dotage generally. Perhaps we’ve grown more polite over time, or perhaps the term has grown increasingly pejorative.
But now that Kim Jong-un has reintroduced the term and applied it to an individual who seems to many of us to come from central casting’s call for an orange-haired dotard, it may regain some of the currency it had in, for instance, a 1726 translation of The Odyssey that noted, “The dotard’s mind/to ev’ry sense is lost, to reason blind.” Already, the media have exploded with the term; as Alex Clark pointed out in The Guardian, “It’s easy to find an insult clever when you agree with it.”
I’ve found myself wondering if some of the other terms by which we insult mentally and generationally challenged people could be related to dotage. Doddering, it turns out is not; it comes from the same roots as chatter, titter, and totter. Dotty does comes from dotage, as does dote. If Kim Jong-un decides to double down on his derision, he might deem Donald a doddering dotty dotard who dotes on Vladimir Putin, but he would be drawing on at least two different etymological strains.
Meanwhile, I for one am happy to have the word resurfacing. And perhaps the Donald considers himself to be in good company. After all, his hero Andrew Jackson was called “a credulous, blind, dotard old man” by William Seward. And perhaps the president can reach back to that same source to apply to Kim Jong-un the epithet Seward applied, in the same breath, to Jackson’s rival, Martin van Buren: “a crawling reptile.”Return to Top