There’s A Word for That: Throttlebottom

alex atkins bookshelf words“What is a throttlebottom?,” you ask. No, it is not a type of fish — although you are close, since it is a type of bottom feeder. A throttlebottom is a wonderful-sounding (rich in consonance) derogatory term for a harmless incompetent person in public office. Think President Trump or just about anyone in his shit-show administration. Where should we begin to review the incompetence: the spectacular bungling of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to a sustained shutdown, bringing about the country’s worst recession, double-digit unemployment, the closing of thousands of businesses, nationwide protests over systemic racial injustice and police brutality, suppression of voting, allowing foreign powers to influence the Presidential election, the corruption of the news industry, obstruction of justice, the disregard and dismantling the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, the debasement of the presidency, disdain for immigrants and the poor, the general corrosive effect on democracy… we could go on. Come to think of, when you consider the 170,000+ deaths due to COVID-19 pandemic, one would have to disregard the adjective “harmless” in the definition of throttlebottom.

The word throttlebottom is an eponym, named after a literary character. It sure sounds Dickensian, doesn’t it? But nope, surprisingly, the character is an entirely 20th-century creation: Vice-President Alexander Throttlebottom from the musical comedy Of Thee I Sing by George Kaufman and Morrie Risking; score and lyrics by George Gershwin. Of Thee I Sing, opened on Broadway in 1931 and was the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In this political satire, a presidential candidate, John Wintergreen, runs for office on the theme of love. As a publicity stunt, his political party sponsors a beauty contest wherein Wintergreen will marry the winner. However, Wintergreen falls in love with a staffer, Mary Turner, and marries her. The contest winner, Diana Devereaux, sues the president for breach of promise. The French ambassador declares that Devereaux is a related to Napoleon and that her jilting is an offense against France. Congress impeaches the president but then learns that Mary is pregnant. The Senate refuses to impeach an expectant father; however the French ambassador demands that President give up his baby or France will sever ties to the U.S. Mary delivers twins which compounds the offense against France. The ambassador is ready to declare war, when the President remembers Article 12 of the Constitution: if the President is unable to fulfill his duties, his obligations are assumed by the Vice-President. Consequently, VP Throttlebottom agrees to marry Devereaux. The chorus sings “Of Thee I Sing” and they all live happily ever after.

Commenting on the merit of Of Thee I Sing, the 1932 Pulitzer Prize Committee noted, “[The play] is not only coherent and well-knit enough to class as a play, but it is a biting and true satire on American politics and the public attitude towards them.” Fast forward seven decades when the drama critic of The New York Times wrote the following about the 2006 musical revival: “[It is] a trenchant little musical satire… the laughter that greets the show today is tinged with surprise at how eerily some of its jokes seem to take precise aim, from decades back, at current affairs.” You don’t say?!

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