We owe this word to a very public literary spat between the poets Alexander Pope and Ambrose Philips at the start of the eighteenth century. Pope hated Philips because political opponents such as Joseph Addison praised the latter’s rustic verses above his own.
It has to be said, from today’s perspective, that Pope had a point. Philips is now virtually unknown and rarely read, and even his best known lines, from a poem called A Winter-Piece, describing the rigours of the Danish winter, which was printed in The Tatler in 1709 (“There solid billows of enormous size, / Alps of green ice, in wild disorder rise”), are merely competent. What his critics hated most was a series of dreadful sentimental and sycophantic poems, written in little short lines, that eulogised the children of friends. The most-quoted example is the opening of one with the title of Miss Charlotte Pulteney, in Her Mother’s Arms: “Timely blossom, infant fair, / Fondling of a happy pair, / Every morn and every night / Their solicitous delight”. I can’t bear to reproduce any more; even the Victorians never surpassed it for ickiness.
In 1725, a friend of Pope’s named Henry Carey wrote a scabrous lampoon about these poems in which he invented a mocking nickname, Namby-Pamby, based on Philips’s given name, and used it in the title, Namby-Pamby: Or, A Panegyric on the New Versification. An extract will give you the tone: “Namby-Pamby, pilly-piss, / Rhimy-pim’d on Missy Miss / Tartaretta Tartaree / From the navel to the knee; / That her father’s gracy grace / Might give him a placy place.” Pope liked the name and included it in the 1733 edition of The Dunciad, his denunciation of popular authors of the day.
It’s odd to think it was largely because of the poetic diatribes against Philips by Carey and Pope that Philips is remembered today. But the most significant result was that namby-pamby permanently entered the language to mean feeble or effeminate in behaviour or expression.