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German Myth 3

Thomas Nast and the word “nasty”

Does the word “nasty” come from Thomas Nast?

MYTHS: German Misnomers, Myths and Mistakes > Myth 3

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was born in the German town of Landau, Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate). He came to the United States at a young age and became a famous (notorious?) political cartoonist. Among his many contributions to American culture are the symbols of the Democratic (donkey) and the Republican (elephant) parties. With his 19th century magazine illustrations he also contributed to the American image of Santa Claus.

But it has also been claimed that the English word "nasty" was derived from the cartoonist's name. The word "nasty" supposedly arose in connection with Nast's vitriolic, biting cartoons in Harper's Weekly and Puck. Even today, you can find references like these: "The term 'nasty' is derived from his name," "Nast's other legacy, derived from the cruelty of his drawings of corrupt politicians in the American humor magazine of yore, Puck, is the word 'nasty,'" "the worst of Thomas Nast's nasty anthropoid caricatures of Irishmen...," "The 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast, in addition to contributing the word "nasty" to our lexicon, forever married the image of a donkey..." and so on. All from "usually reliable sources."

I must confess that I once fell for this German myth myself, attributing the word to Thomas Nast in several online articles. (I've tried to correct or delete all of them before now.) After all, it just seems so logical. "Nast" becomes "nasty." But, unfortunately for fans of the simple explanation, the word "nasty" predates Thomas Nast by several centuries. The word comes from Middle English and is related to the Dutch word nestig (dirty). Although "nasty" Nast may have indirectly contributed to the popularity of the word in English, it seems we can't really attribute the coinage of "nasty" to Thomas Nast. Too bad.

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Dictionary entry: Merriam-Webster - 'nasty' - from Middle English


German Misnomers, Myths and Mistakes
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