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You can see where this one is coming from. It could hardly be anything other than an insult and refers to somebody who is a parasite, a greedy sponger and a freeloader. Such a person has a good nose for the scent, literal or figurative, of a good meal in the offing.

This, by his Garb and Mien, should be one of those Creatures whom they call a Hanger-on, a Spunger, or Smell-Feast.

The Invader of his Country: or The Fatal Resentment, by John Dennis, 1720.

The word has vanished from the active language but was very common in the seventeenth century and didn’t die out altogether for another couple of hundred years.

An even ruder term was the much less well recorded lickdish. If you would like to obscure that insult through a classical allusion, you could call such a person a catillo, from Latin catillare, to lick a plate.

The prolific writer and translator Sir Roger L’Estrange published an English edition of Aesop’s Fables in the 1690s. Some fifty years later, a sentence from it was borrowed by Dr Johnson to illustrate the word in his Dictionary: “The ant lives upon her own, honestly gotten; whereas the fly is an intruder, and a common smellfeast that spunges [sponges] upon other people’s trenchers.”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 08 Apr 2006