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In recent weeks, President Trump has delivered a number of fiery speeches and incendiary tweets about what will happen to North Korea if Kim Jong-un launches nuclear missiles over Japan and toward Guam and the United States.

Naturally, the feisty dictator replied with some choice words of his own:

"North Korean leader responds to Trump: ‘I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire'", bThe Washington Post (9/21/17).

The Washington Post seems to have changed the title of the article, so I can no longer provide a direct link, but there are plentiful records of it on the internet.  In any event, countless other media outlets quoted the same odd word, "dotard".

Having been an English major in college, way back when, I was unflummoxed by "dotard", but it did send many readers scurrying for their dictionaries, where they would find something like this:

          an old person, especially one who has become weak or senile.

That's not how I pronounce it.  For me, it is \dō′tərd\.

"Dotard" is related to the word for the mental condition referred to as "dotage" ("feebleness of mind associated with aging").

Many useful accounts of the history and meaning of "dotard" popped up on the internet this morning (e.g., here, here, and here).

James Griffiths has an article,"What is a 'Dotard'?" on CNN (9/22/17) in which he rightfully points out:

Kim, of course, did not say the word — he was speaking in Korean. "Dotard" was the official English translation provided by state news agency KCNA for the Korean "늙다리미치광이" ("neulg-dali-michigwang-i"), which literally translates as "old lunatic."

On the other hand, in "'Dotard' rockets from obscurity to light up Trump-Kim exchange, spark partisan war of words", Los Angeles Times (9/22/17), Mark Z. Barabak writes:

The Korean equivalent of dotard is “neukdari,” which is a derogatory term for an old person.

One possible explanation for Kim’s use of the antiquated insult came from Joan H. Lee*, who covered North Korea for the Associated Press. She said on Twitter that she had visited the offices of the government’s propaganda arm, the North Korean state news service, and “found the agency using very old Korean-English dictionaries for their translations.”

*[VHM:  I think that Barabak is referring to Jean H. Lee.]

There's been some confusion about just which Korean expression Kim applied to Trump.  The full epithet he employed was "neulg-dali-michigwang-i 늙다리 미치광이" (neulg-dali –> derogatory term for old/withered man/dotard; michigwang-i –> lunatic").  Google Translate renders that as "an old man lunatic".  Colloquially, one could translate the entire expression as "crazy old fool".

For a detailed discussion of the Korean expression, see this tweetstorm from Noon in Korea.

Prediction:  President Trump, whether directly or indirectly, will be the source of more new ("bigly", "covfefe") and resuscitated ("dotard") words than anyone since Shakespeare, though they are unlikely to last as long.

[Thanks to Ben Zimmer, Haewon Cho, and Jichang Lulu]


  1. Andrew Deacon said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

    During a discussion over at Pharyngula, it was pointed out that most people of a certain age should remember Dotard from Tolkein:-
    “‘Gibbets and crows!’ he (Saruman) hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? ”
    It was also noted that CS Lewis used it

  2. Terry Hunt said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

    Perhaps because I read a lot of fantasy and historical fiction, 'dotard' has been familiar to me from childhood (so, more than 4 decades), and I was surprised to realise that it's not generally familiar to English speakers.

    I was similarly bemused by the recent kerfuffle over the 30 supposedly 'lost' words some University of York linguists propose reviving, as I was quite familiar with three of them, including 'slug-a-bed' which is routinely used in my not-very-academic family.

  3. Christian Weisgerber said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 2:56 pm

    I take it Victor took the transcription /ˈdōdərd/ from Google define: or whatever dictionary they use as source. The merging of flapped t with d is very specific to that particular dictionary.

    I assume I'm not the only one who wasn't familiar with "dotard" and wondered whether it was derived from "retard" similar to "libtard".

  4. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    I learned "dotard" (and "dotage") long ago from Shakespeare. He also used a synonym, "dotant," in Coriolanus.

  5. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    Andrew Deacon: There's also

    "'Folly?' said Gandalf. "Nay, my lord, when you are a dotard you will die.'"

    A favorite of mine for being an unusually harsh compliment.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

    I wasn't familiar with dotard, but I guessed it might be related to dotage. But I never suspected the link to dote (original meaning refers to mushy thinking, transferred meaning in dote on refers to the loss of critical faculties involved in doting on someone).

    @Christian Weisgerber: The use of /d/ for the flapped North American /t/ goes back at least to the Webster's Third International (1961), which generally gave both /d/ and /t/ as possible variants. The case of dotard is typical: it gives both /ˈdōdərd/ and /ˈdōtərd/.

  7. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

    @Bob Ladd: To me, it looks more like the New Oxford American Dictionary for MacOS since only one option is given (but I can't confirm since I don't own any apples). Minus the fancy IPA vowel symbols. I'm pleased to see Victor Mair's comment on how he feels the transcription relates to his own pronunciation.

  8. Jonathan Silk said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

    I knew the word, but rather assumed–evidently wrongly–a connection with 'to dodder', as in 'a doddering old fool,' which I think is not rare. Cp. also the close tottering?

  9. Chris C. said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 4:39 pm

    @Jerry Friedman — "A favorite of mine for being an unusually harsh compliment." Also prescient. When Denethor's mind broke down, he committed suicide.

    I've always wondered whether the ultra-bombastic rhetoric we here from NK was a faithful reflection of the original, or the product of translators from elsewhere deliberately trying to make them sound foolish. If this is from official translations, can anyone offer an opinion about how competent they are?

  10. Belial Issimo said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 6:15 pm

    The weirdly archaic tone of official NK rhetoric is very well captured on the parody Twitter account

  11. David Morris said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

    I would have pronounced it with a full vowel in the second syllable. Now that I know that it's got a reduced vowel, I'm imagining Oscar Hammerstein using it in 'The Lonely Goatherd'.

  12. Graeme said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 6:45 pm

    If it weren't for the high register 'surely and definitely tame', I'd think using obscure words like 'dotard' might be an attempt to niggle or mock Mr Trump, whose vocabulary is seen as limited/simplistic and direct.

  13. Stephen said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

    Harry Graham, in his delightful Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, did rhyme "dotard" with "goatherd."

    In another couplet of the same poem, he also rhymed "goatherd" with "motored." Therefore, by transitivity…

  14. Y said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

    To my (L2) American English ears, the word brought up two contradictory associations. One, the stilted translations of the language of exoticized foreigners; and the -tard ending, which is associated with childish insults. Both manage to take the edge of the actual physical threat implied in the message by making it more cartoonish.

  15. andrew martin said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 10:55 pm

    Yeah this is strange to me

    Pretty well-read bloggers like Jason Kottke and John Grubsr were confused by the word.

    I was quite sure that I encountered it as a child reading the Lord of the Rings and also somewhere in C.S. Lewis. I also think I remember it being used in Steven R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. But it might have been dotage and not dotard. But I read those after Tolkien and Lewis, so if it was there, then the association seemed obvious.

    Seems like other people both here and elsewhere are remembering the same things. Glad I'm not imagining them.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

    Bob Ladd: The connection with dote on looks like the same as in infatuate, and in reverse, in fond.

  17. chips mackinolty said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 11:13 pm

    I must be in my dotage.

    My first quick reading of "… about what will happen to North Korea if Kim Jong-un launches nuclear missiles" had me thinking your post said: "… about what will happen to North Korea if Kim Jong unlaunches nuclear missiles".

    Unlaunches? Now there's an idea for the Korean Peninsula.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 22, 2017 @ 11:20 pm

    No, wait, I mean dote, infatuate, and fond all developed the same way, from "foolish" to "loving".

  19. Lazar said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 4:13 am

    That's not how I pronounce it. For me, it is \dō′tərd\.

    The use of /d/ in these cases by Google's dictionary really rubs me the wrong way. Plenty of North Americans still maintain at least some phonemic distinction between /t/ and /d/ in weak position despite flapping, either by subtle vowel length differences or by the presence or absence of Canadian raising – writer/rider being the canonical example.

    I've also noticed a lot of commentators pronouncing the word as [ˈdoʊtɑːɹd] or the like. I suppose, not being familiar with it, it doesn't occur to them that this is a typical application of the element -ard found in wizard, Spaniard, etc. – but they may also be influenced by the contemporary netspeak use of -tard as a derogative suffix, as in fucktard or Paultard.

  20. ajay said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 5:47 am

    I always liked the coinage "anecdotage" for "that time of life where your main occupation is telling people long stories".

    (Relevant because they're full of wordplay, John Finnemore's "Storyteller" sketches.
    "It was cold, so I put on my greatcoat and also my super trousers.")

  21. Jeff Carney said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 9:08 am

    Is it possible that Kim's insult is a kind of inversion of John McCain's "Crazy fat kid" barb?

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 11:19 am

    I too am surprised to learn it's not generally known to L1 speakers (and yes, it's entirely likely I learnt it from Tolkien).

  23. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

    "Kim Jong-un lashes out at Trump for getting Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ stuck in his head"

    by Paul Sharpe about 6 hours ago in Duffel Blog

    Elton John earworm!

  24. Paul Kay said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

    Let's not put all the blame on Google. From the OED:

    Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈdəʊtəd/, U.S. /ˈdoʊdərd/

  25. Steve Morrison said,

    September 23, 2017 @ 7:33 pm

    @Jerry Friedman and Andrew Deacon:

    There are some more usages in LotR. At one point Denethor says to Faramir: “My son, your father is old but not yet dotard.” Later he says to Gandalf: “I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart.”

  26. Lawrence said,

    September 24, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    I believe you misheard Kim's translator. He did not say "dotard." He said "doughtard," which means someone with more money than brains. I, myself, don't use the twitter – not being a twit – but I did Google "doughtard," certain that I wasn't the first person to think of so apt a term for our Feckless Leader, and was not surprised to learn that "doughtard" already has its own hashtag. Only in America!

  27. Abbas said,

    September 24, 2017 @ 1:24 pm

    Strange as it may seem, dotard is one of the first English words I learned and probably among the very first I searched in a dictionary. My first English teacher was an elderly, choleric and pre-Vatican II Catholic Brother, nicknamed (in Spanish) “la vieja chocha” (the old dotard woman). Here my unusually early interest in dotage. Chocha is the female form of chocho, in itself an interesting word. Besides referring to men like the current POTUS, it may refer to a popular snack (lupin seeds in brine) and also an even more popular way of designating female pudenda.

  28. mg said,

    September 24, 2017 @ 4:54 pm

    Clearly, those of us raised on great fantasy are a different linguistic breed from other English speakers. I, too, am amazed to discover that so many educated people don't know the word dotard. Since I don't watch TV news, this LL post is the first time I learned this.

  29. Birdseeding said,

    September 25, 2017 @ 4:05 am

    @Abbas – thank you for helping me understand the lyrics of Missy Elliott's "Work it" a touch better.

  30. Philip Anderson said,

    September 26, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

    Although dotard may be the output of an old dictionary, to me it comes over as more educated than archaic, and a more cutting insult than "crazy old man" would have been.

    It isn't related to retard (the stress gives that away), but to wizard and a whole class of derogatory words: are sluggard, laggard, niggard and drunkard equally unknown?

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