dotard /DOH-tərd/. noun or adjective. A stupid, foolish, possibly senile person.
I take words to heart and believe in the power of the pen over sticks and stones, so the language of politics can be difficult to bear. But once I mostly stopped my prescriptivist worrying and learned to love the linguistic bombs, political discussions became a bit more tolerable. In that light the last year or so has been, dare I say, unpresidented in terms of renewal and invention. In close contention for this week’s word were the now standard antifa and kleptocracy, the painfully accurate broflake, the mysterious milkshake duck, the meme-y #metoo – and most of all, the immortal coinage covfefe.
But I just couldn’t squander this chance to ponder a political word on a tiny-handed typo so have chosen instead an old wine in a new bottle with dotard. You might remember dotard—like most you might only remember it—from Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un’s address in 2017 in which he noted that “a frightened dog barks louder” and said, of Supreme Leader of the United States Donald Trump, that:
Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say.
I became aware that dotard might not be as commonly known as I thought when I had the misfortune of nearly simultaneously hearing both a Fox news guest and Sunday residents at their usual coffee shop table variously pronouncing the word as do-TARD and doe-TARD in the style of the deplorable term libtard that unfortunately wasn’t new to either venue.
In fact, dotard is unrelated to the originally latin retard from which the aforementioned coinage is derived. Dotard is an archaic word for a fool and imbecile, particularly one whose mind is enfeebled by age and senility. The root of dotard is dote, used nowadays almost solely in the phrase “to dote on” or “dote upon,” having transformed over time from meaning someone who is irrational and deranged to someone who is excessively affectionate (if there’s a difference). Interpreting the written word as doe-TARD seems to say more about the reader than the original speaker.
But what about that speaker? It immediately seemed strange to me that Kim Jong Un would use a word whose usage peaked—and I use that adjective loosely—in the 1820s. If readers knew the word dotard at all, it would likely be from the plays of Shakespeare or, if they were really fabulous folks, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Both were inordinately fond of the word and its derivatives, such as dotage, which Shakespeare has the villainous Goneril employ multiple times to describe King Lear and which Tolkien likewise uses to describe the Learish Théoden.
As it turns out, Kim actually used the word neukdari, a Korean term that literally translates as “old lunatic.” Responsibility for the Shakespearean turn of translation lies with the Korean Central News Agency, or the KCNA, whose reliance on very old Korean-English dictionaries—and a penchant for stilted, archaic English translation in general—is well known enough to be the basis for a variety of internet rabbit holes I encourage listeners to explore.
At any rate, I’m glad to see the revival of the word dotard, which deserves the love and will soon enough be applicable to me. While we’re at it, might I put in a plug for the brilliant—and in my own case likely even more accurate—portmanteau anecdotard, meaning an old fool addicted to telling foolish stories?
Notes & Quotes
Robespierre was unusually angry. It was the insult of Roland as an opponent, this dotard with his trollop of a wife and his incessant, obsessive muttering about the accounts of Danton’s ministry. That, and the gnat bites of their insinuations, whispers behind hands, stray voices in the street that call “September” and pass on.
—from A Place of Greater Safety
He has intimations that a miraculous, love-born reflorescence of his youth might be around the corner; he even dreams of engendering a son (yes, it is true, a little half-brother to you). But can he trust these intimations? Are they not perhaps a dotard’s fantasies?
—J. M. Coetzee
—from Slow Man
California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation, a disproportion most reasonably explained, Fox suggests, “by the zeal with which California state officials sought to locate, detain, and treat not only those considered ‘mentally ill,’ but also a wide variety of other deviants—including, as state hospital physicians put it, ‘imbeciles, dotards, idiots, drunkards, simpletons, fools,’ and ‘the aged, the vagabond, the helpless.’”
—from Where I Was From