A colleague of mine, on a rare occasion when he was not doing serious philosophy, introduced me to the term “tosspot.” His word is not the sixteenth-century synonym for “drunkard,” “someone who can really toss off his drink,” which Shakespeare employs in Feste’s hauntingly melancholy song at the end of Twelfth Night:
But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.
Still less is my colleague’s “tosspot” an all-purpose term of abuse, as it seems to be in contemporary Britain (usually abbreviated to “tosser”), or a term of affectionate camaraderie, as it is said to be in contemporary Australia. For my colleague, “tosspot” denominates a linguistic category: words taking the form of a transitive verb (“toss”) followed by a direct object of that verb (“pot”). The challenge with tosspots is to find as many of them as possible. By coincidence, the name “Shakespeare” is itself a tosspot, as is the surname of his character Doll Tearsheet, at least in one of the meanings of “tear” (see Aptronym). “Falstaff” (see Buckram) comes tantalizingly close but is disqualified from true tosspottedness because “fall” is an intransitive verb. “Clambake” also comes close but is really a pottoss. For extra credit, which pope’s birthname is a tosspot? The answer is Nicholas Breakspeare, Adrian IV, the only English pontiff. To “Breakspeare” and “Shakespeare” might be added the names “Catchpole” and “Wagstaff.” It seems strange that so many tosspots should involve long narrow objects.
Plain words, as opposed to names, can be tosspots too. A “catchpenny” publication is, or was—it’s an old-fashioned term—something cheap, something “got up merely to sell” as the OED says, to catch your penny. A “lickspittle” is a toady, a person so determined to flatter that he will actually lick . . . well, you can work out the meaning for yourself. Meanwhile an extraordinary number of tosspots have to do with criminality. Words like “picklock,” “cutthroat,” “cutpurse,” and “pickpocket” take us back to a pungent era of street crime and forthright descriptions of crime. And finally, can some historical semanticist explain why there are so there are so many tosspots based on the verb “turn”? We have “turncoat,” for example, a renegade, a traitor, originally someone who hid his true loyalties by reversing his coat or uniform. Turncoats may wind up in a prison guarded by a “turnkey.” And then there is “turnpike.” In the eighteenth century, once you paid the toll, what was turned was a barrier across a road, and the barrier was called a “pike” because it was some sort of spiky sharp weapon—yet another long narrow object. This is an etymology to be contemplated as you drive along on a turnpike, especially if it’s the kind with old-fashioned, non-electronic tollbooths. There, with tosspots of all kinds on your mind, you can toss your coins into the pot provided.