One of my colleagues from the Editors’ Association of Canada, Daphne Davey, moved last fall to a town in P.E.I. with the charming name of Crapaud. Naturally, she named her residence Toad Hall.
For those who don’t know French, I’ll explain: crapaud, aside from having a taste of crap that can hardly be more pleasing than the odour of toad, is in fact French for “toad”. And toad is a word that does not bring a whole lot of charm… except in connection with Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, in which a key character is a moneyed, mansion-owning, maniacal toad (named Mr. Toad) who goes on wild jags (his fanaticism for motor cars lands him in jail – I can’t remember if any car gets towed away, but Toad gets away with several). Toad Hall is the name of Mr. Toad’s abode.
But step away from that vehicle and you will find toads associated with little that is fun or appealing (save perhaps the band Toad the Wet Sprocket). Indeed, one might almost wonder whether toad stands for “take off and die”, given that it is commonly used by women as an epithet for unattractive men. (I am unaware of any similar use of it on women.) It also has a long literary history as a byword for a lowly, ugly, nasty, stupid person – Shakespeare used it several times, for instance.
What, after all, is a toad? An amphibian that appears to be covered in warts (they’re not really warts and you can’t catch warts from a toad) – a squat, croaking thing that is a byword for animal unattractiveness. Even the word plays into that; although the look of the written word toad is not abnormally homely (though, as Margaret Gibbs has pointed out, it’s “a short, fat, squat little word, sitting there with its mouth and eyes agape in the middle”), the word is capable of being said in a way that emphasizes the ugliness: the lips puckering out, possibly with the nostrils narrowing a little, as though expressing disapprobation at an unpleasant smell; the initial stop spits a little, and the final stop is voiced, so the vowel is held long enough that one may lower the voice to a croaky level, and it’s that round back vowel that is quite lacking in brightness.
Oh, and toads were formerly thought to be poisonous (now we know of some poison frogs, but frogs are much cuter). Charlatans and mountebanks hawking snake-oil nostrums for the cure of poisoning would have an assistant who would pretend to eat a poisonous toad so that he could be cured by the elixir. From this, someone in a servile or sycophantic role was called a toad-eater, and this was shortened later to toady (as in fawning lickspittle toady).
This word and its imagery lend their flavour, in fact, to an assortment of different compounds. After all, it’s a convenient, short word (straight from Anglo-Saxon tadige; the Latin is, incidentally, bufo – that seems somehow suited, too, doesn’t it?), naming a common enough creature that may be associated with various things. So the OED gives us, among others, toad-fish, toad-flax, toad-back, toad-bellied, toad-blind, toad-cheese, toad-flower, toad-grass, toad-head, toad-housing, toad in the hole, toad-legged, toad-marl, toad-poison, toad-pond, toad-pool, toad-rush, toad’s bread, toad’s eye tin, toad’s-guts, toadskin, toad-snatcher, toad-spawn, toad-spit, toad-sticker, toad-strangler, toad-swollen, toad under a harrow, and toadwise. Among others.
Including, of course, toadstool. Which is not the tool of a toad, but rather (as you likely know) a mushroom. It’s also, in my personal history, an object lesson in getting what you pay for.
I’ll explain: at one time I was looking at some French translations that had been done by an agency which was, I believe, chosen for its, uh, fiscal efficiency. In an article on food poisoning, I noticed that toadstools had been translated as excréments de crapaud. Which would be “toad stools” (that’s stools in the medical sense).
Um, well, yes, crapaud crap would give you food poisoning, but, no, that’s not what we had in mind.
Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting toad in honour of Daphne Davey.