An American Editor

March 26, 2010

On Words: Panjandrum

I hadn’t read anything that used the word panjandrum in decades. Truth be told, I’d forgotten what it means, even that it exists, until a couple of weeks ago when I read the following in The Economist in an article about President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel:

Mr Emanuel is famous for being the president’s pugnacious panjandrum.…

One thing I can say about The Economist, it doesn’t mince language. By reputation, not by pronouncement, it is the newspaper/magazine, and it tends to choose words to describe events that one rarely encounters in daily American English. Panjandrum is just the most recent example.

Probably the best place to start is with its meaning. I confess that upon reading panjandrum I immediately reached for my dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11e, panjandrum means “a powerful personage or pretentious official.” Well, there’s no doubt about Rahm Emanuel’s power or pretentiousness.

The word comes from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense passage written in 1755 by Samuel Foote, an English actor and dramatist, to test the vaunted memory of the actor Charles Macklin, who claimed he could repeat anything after hearing it once. The memory-testing passage was:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming down the street, pops its head into the shop. What! No soap? So he died, and she very imprudently married the Barber: and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the great Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

I don’t know if Macklin lived up to his boast, but this is surely a passage to test one’s short-term memory!

Nat Hentoff used the word to describe “a panjandrum of the publishing business.” Salman Rushdie used the term in his novel, The Satanic Verses: “Look: there she is, down there, sitting back like the Grand Panjandrum.” George E. Farrow, in his Dick, Marjorie and Fidge: A Search for the Wonderful Dodo, wrote, for example,: “Panjandrum is a very severe one” and “I am the Ambassador Extraordinary of his Magnificence the little Panjandrum, and you tell me that you have seen the Dodo; that is enough.” E. Cobham Brewer wrote, in his Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama (1892), “The squire of a village is the Grand Panjandrum, and the small gentry the Picninnies, Joblillies, and Garyulies.” And Jessie Hubbell Bancroft, in her Games for the Playground, Home, School and Gymnasium (1922), listed one of the instructions as: “One player is chosen to be the Panjandrum, an important personage requiring a body guard.”

In the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), also by E. Cobham Brewer, panjandrum was defined as “The Grand Panjandrum. A village boss, who imagines himself the ‘Magnus Apollo’ of his neighbours.”

In the 1922 Roget’s International Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, the word was placed amidst more sinister words: “…TYRANT, disciplinarian, precisian, martinet, stickler, bashaw, despot, the Grand Panjandrum himself, hard master, Draco, oppressor, inquisitor, extortioner…”

Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), a great 19th century children’s book illustrator and author and for whom the Caldecott Prize is named, illustrated a book titled The Great Panjandrum Himself (Samuel Foote was the named author although Foote had died in 1777) and authored and illustrated The Panjandrum Picture Book.

Panjandrum was also a Broadway musical by Woolson Morse and J. Cheever Goodwin. It had a short run by today’s standards, opening May 1, 1893 and closing in the following September.

But panjandrum never dies. In World War II, panjandrum was a massive, rocket-propelled, explosive-laden cart designed by the British military. It was one of a number of highly experimental projects developed by the British Admiralty’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development in the final years of the war. The cart never was used in the war. Tom Wolfe mentioned this project in his 1979 book The Right Stuff. On June 5, 2009, the Daily Mail ran an article about the panjandrum experiment and the online version includes a video of the Great Panjandrum (reconstructed) in action.

Great Panjandrum also appears in Jasper Fforde’s 2003 novel The Well of Lost Plots, featuring literary detective Thursday Next. The Great Panjandrum is the leader of BookWorld, where the action takes place.

So even though I haven’t seen the word used in years, it obviously has been, albeit sporadically. Now that I have reencountered it, I think I will try to incorporate it into my vocabulary, especially when discussing politics. After all, a nonsensical word seems a most appropriate appellation to use when discussing politicians. And I will watch for its next appearance in my readings.

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