Sun | Jul 22, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | Dotards and retards

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I am grateful for the patience of The Gleaner’s usually very demanding opinion editor, who accepted my excuses for columnistic non-production with mild, if unmistakable, disapproval. Better columnists churn out copy regardless of personal circumstances, and spending days at 35,000 feet in the air is hardly an excuse nowadays.

There are, after all, lounges in airports, and on some flights, there is even Wi-Fi connectivity. One simply has very few reasons to go completely off the grid nowadays.

My travels took me into South East Asia, where, on numerous occasions, I was far too close to North Korea for my own comfort. Needless to say, the frequency and intensity of my prayers increased as I travelled through generally Buddhist lands, and even though it is not my intention to offend anyone, I definitely prefer gods with a greater appetite for intervention in earthly affairs. Nowhere did prayer get more intense than in South Korea, where I happened to be just when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seemed set to turn the Korean Peninsula into a sea of fire.

Putting the accident of being physically in the line of fire to one side, the exchange of insults has been entertaining. I think Mr Trump’s referring to Kim as “Rocket Man”, even at the UN General Assembly, might not have been very helpful from a international relations standpoint, but it has done wonders for international comedy, not least because of the Korean comeback.

Actually though, it is my view that Mr Trump is talking past Kim and to his facilitators in China who have maintained the North Korean menace as a legacy project from the Korean War, regardless of how ridiculous and dangerous it has become.

Anyway, not to be outdone in the insult department, Kim shot back with a memorable barb aimed at Trump, calling him a “dotard”, and precipitating an avalanche of Internet searches for that word. Sadly, such a colourful and specific insult had to be revived by the likes of Kim.


As it happens ­ and I don’t mean to show off here ­ but this is hardly a new word to us in Jamaica.

Certainly, my grandmother used to deploy a variant of it frequently, mostly to abuse her ex-husband or anyone who reminded her of him. It was liberally mixed with the word ‘dolt’ and variants thereof, because it was her habit to store sharp insults like safety pins in her handbag, and sometimes the pins get stuck together of course. Thus ‘dolted’, ‘doltish’, and other cognates were used for those lacking wit or ageing ungracefully.

The word ‘dotard’ is having such a revival that The New York Times has even noted:

“The word has appeared on the pages of The New York Times just 10 times since 1980, always in the paper’s arts coverage. ‘A favourite theme of the medieval fabliau is the May-December tale of the dotard husband cuckolded by his young wife,’ began one book review in 1986.”

In fact, it reminds me of a story shared by a friend recently, about just such a situation as referenced by The New York Times as being a favourite topic of the medievalists. It turns out that some concerns persist throughout the ages, entertaining the medievals as much as it would have entertained my grandmother.

The story is about a couple thrown together by well-meaning friends who knew of a young girl looking for a stable husband and an older gentleman searching for a kind soul for companionship. A match made in heaven, right?

So they meet up and the energetic young woman is talking to her older prospect about how their relationship could work. Finances were no problem at all. Living arrangements? Simple. She could move in.


All that being covered, the gentleman decided to raise the somewhat delicate matter of physical relations because it was his habit of moderating and managing expectations as best he could.

Man: “We should discuss the matter of sex”

Girl: “Yes! How often would you like it?”

Man: “Well ... honestly ... . I can have it infrequently.”

Painful pause.

Girl: (Shuffling uncomfortably with a growing look of worry, she then leans over and whispers) “Ahhhhmmm ... is that one word or two?”

The point is: words matter. And as someone who formerly had no respect for Kim, it’s amazing how the launching of one word can positively affect my estimation of him, even if I know it was the work of a clever translator.

Anyhow, back to the matter at hand. The situation in North Korea represents a massive failure of the United Nations and of all the leadership of the saner parts of the world. How could it have been allowed to happen that the maniacal leader of an uncivilised backwater could come into possession of nuclear weaponry? Yet here it is: Kim is now threatening to detonate hydrogen bombs over the Pacific.

It hardly needs saying that a nuclear North Korea destabilises the region, threatens the prosperous and free South Korea, and deservedly frightens the Japanese. This is China’s baby. They keep the grotesque regime alive with trade and turn a blind eye to its slave camps and illegal exports.

What would happen to us if that rogue Kim goes too far? Perhaps in some small way, we can set aside our own escalating China worship for a minute and remind them that we, too, have a small stake in them taking charge of their crazy neighbour. It’s the sort of thing we used to be able to do before becoming economic serfs.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to