Whigs and Tories


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You can blame Maggie Thatcher for this column. She’s already taken the rap for everything from poll tax to the greenhouse effect, so one more burden won’t make much difference. Her visit to South Africa prompted a habitué of the Centre for Adult Education to pause from his researches into zymurgy (we’ll deal with that one later) to ask: “You newspaper types know about words- can you tell me why Conservatives are called Tories?”

Mm, yes, good point. Why are they called Tories? So off we went on another word-following expedition.

The chase through reference books was long and complex, but eventually Tory was run to earth as a word of Irish derivation- originally “toraidhe”, a pursuer, one who dogs your heels with evil intent. Nell Kinnock no doubt agrees whole-heartedly, but politics aside, the word is a history lesson itself.

About 1640 the dispossessed Irish, being outlaws with nothing more to lose, took to the roads and robbed the English settlers whenever they got the chance. A commendable occupation. They were variously called Bog-trotters, Rapparees, and Tories.

Some 40 years later, the British faction who wanted to exclude Catholics from the Succession, sought an offensive name for their Royalist, pro-Papist, anti-Dissenting opponents. They chose the one which was applied to “the most despicable savages among the wild Irish”- Tories!

The puzzling thing is why the Tories accepted the insult so readily, for they were very soon declaring passionately from innumerable soap-boxes: “I am proud to be a Tory!”

Conversely, the Tories themselves chose a term of equal opprobrium for their opponents- Whigs. In this case, the word is of Scottish descent, but no more reputable, Whiggamores were lawless horse-thieves and cattle-rustlers.

Some say the name comes from the cry of “wheech!” which they used to urge on their purloined livestock. Others claim that Whig is a variation of whey, and was a taunt against the sour-milk faces of the self-righteous Covenanters.

By the way, zymurgy (Greek: zyme- leaven and ergon- work) is the study of brewing, distilling, wine-making, and the products thereof. It’s always been a favourite source of revenue for Tory governments.


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