Since I'm on a 19th-Century-British-word jag, today's word is "panjandrum." According to the OED, a panjandrum is, "A mock title for a mysterious (frequently imaginary) personage of great power or authority; a pompous or pretentious official; a self-important person in authority." The legend about this word is that Samuel Foote (1720-77) made it up in an extemporaneous speech meant to test the memory of Charles Maklin, who claimed to have total recall (not the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie). In that context Foote was referring to the "grand panjandrum"--some faux figure of great authority--entirely made up in the moment. That is one of the lovely things about this word: linguistically it impossible to trace. There is no Old French or Old Norse root or version of this word because it is completely made up. Now, normally I wouldn't say that a word describing an authority figure would be onomatopoeic (and it isn't exactly), but doesn't panjandrum just sound like some bloated muckamuk who has let his sense of self-importance run away with him?
Well, the phrase had fully arrived by the 19th century, but it took an unexpected turn, or roll, as the next case will show. Late in WWII the British tested a new weapon called the "Great Panjandrum." It was basically two huge, ten-foot in diameter, wooden wheels connected by a drum in the middle, which contained four thousand pounds of explosive. Oh, and it was rocket powered, and could apparently achieve speeds of 60-70 miles per hour. On the day of the final test,
"It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began...careering towards Klemantaski who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum...crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed"(Brian Johnson BBC).
It has since been claimed by some historians that it was never intended to be used in battle--which it wasn't (surprise, surprise)--but rather intended to intimidate the Germans. Gee, it's too bad that Hitler never saw our rocket-powered spool of death. That would have ended the war for sure.
So, whether the panjandrums in our lives are jerk bosses, the proverbial "they", "the powers that be", a ten-foot flaming wheel, or all of the above at least we will know what to call it.