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01:00 Tue 09th Apr 2002 |

Q. So what is a toad-eater

A. Originating in the 17th century, a toad-eater was a mountebank's assistant.

Q. Mountebank

A. An itinerant vendor of medicines. The name comes from the Italian monta im banco, which denoted one who climbs on to a bench in order to get the crowd's attention and then sell their wares.

Q. OK. So what did the assistant do

A. The toad-eater would pretend to swallow a toad - toads were considered to be extremely poisonous - and collapse in a quivering heap, to all intents and purposes on the point of death. With the administering of the particular remedy potion being flogged by the mountebank, the toad-eater would spring back to life apparently unaffected. A great piece of advertising.

This gave rise to the verb 'to toad-eat', which meant to fawn or behave in a servile fashion.

Q. Hence 'toady'

A. Exactly.

Q. So these remedy potions were rather like the snake oils touted around by unscrupulous quack-doctors in the USA during the 19th century

A. Pretty much. Quack is an archaic alternative for hawk, hence quack-doctor (originally quacksalver), a 'doctor' who quacked or hawked his goods around. Snake oils were cure-alls purveyed by these travelling salesmen.

Q. Didn't Coca-Cola start out that way

A. A bit of an urban myth that one. Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by an Atlanta pharmacist, John S. Pemberton, at his Pemberton Chemical Company. He originally marketed his drink as a tonic for most common ailments, based as it was on cocaine (removed from the formula in 1905) and caffeine-rich extracts of the kola nut - so a bit of a pick-me-up, if you like. In 1891 he sold the formula to another Atlanta pharmacist, Asa Griggs Candler, for a total cash outlay of $2,300 and the exchange of some proprietary rights. If only Pemberton had known that the following year the now-incorporated Coca-Cola Company would be worth $100,000 and, by the time Candler sold it in 1919, a massive $25 million, he might have asked for a bit more.

Q. Why were toads considered so poisonous

A. Probably because they're pretty ugly. And it is true that some frogs and toads excrete toxins from their skin. The excretions of certain tree frogs in the Amazon Basin are used by Indian tribes to poison their arrow heads, and there is a type of toad which produces a chemical which causes hallucinogenic reactions similar to LSD and mescaline in humans (don't go kissing too many frogs in the search for a cheap high, though, you might end up saddled with a minor Royal instead).

Conversely, toads were also deemed to have curative properties. The London Dispensary of 1678, for example, tells us that 'toad steeped in vinegar...stops bleeding at the nose'. However, the press was mostly bad, as reported by Purchas in his Pilgrimes (1625). He cited the legend of the Sultan of Cambay, who apparently regularly ate poisons, with toads being his particular favourite. In consuming toads he rendered his breath poisonous, thus causing the death of as many as four thousand of his concubines. Why he should want to this we are not told.

Q. Who was Purchas

A. Samuel Purchas (c. 1577-1626) was an English writer who continued the work of geographer Richard Hakluyt in Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes; Contayning a History of the World, in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and Others. This collection is one of the few sources of information on important questions relating to geographical history and early exploration that we have. It was also, by all accounts, the book that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was reading as he fell asleep and dreamed up his masterpiece of imagistic poetry 'Kubla Khan'.

See also the answerbank article on 'Kubla Khan'

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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