This week’s word is carpetbagger which I came across in the excellent military history word book “Sticklers, Sideburns and Bikinis” by Graeme Donald that I’ve mentioned here before. Carpetbagger isn’t a commonly used word here in Ireland but I had a vague memory of Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind” being called that word.
Vague memories are often incorrect, however, and Rhett wasn’t a carpetbagger at all. He was a blockade runner whose ship slipped past the Union blockade to bring supplies to the south (and earn a good profit in the process).
Carpetbagger entered American English in the 1860s as a negative word for opportunistic whites from the northern part of the country who moved south after the fall of the Confederacy to grab political power (from which some local residents were barred at the time) or to seize property and lands taken by the Union army. Such people arrived carrying their worldly goods in sturdy bags made from carpet scraps.
I wasn’t able to source a copyright free image for this one, but if you picture Mary Poppin’s bag (the one she can find anything in, even a standard lamp) then you’re on the right track.
Over time the word was used for several types of unpopular people out to take advantage of situations for their own advancement including ( but not limited to) – political candidates running in areas where they are not resident, somebody opening an account in a building society solely in the hope the business will go public and they’ll get a windfall payment in the process (UK and Ireland), an amateur Gaelic games player from Ireland who plays without salary but with rich side benefits in the US during the Irish off-season (Ireland), teachers and missionaries who moved from north to southern states (US), and even a steak stuffed with oysters (New Zealand).
Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,
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p.p.s. I’m working away on my next word history book, “Words The Sea Gave Us” at the moment and hoping to launch online in May. I got a sneak peak of the cover this week, very exciting! I’ll let you know when pre-orders and advance review copies are available. Watch this space.