Thursday, July 1, 2010


This one comes up from time to time when you read certain kinds of things--British fiction, say, or The New York Review of Books. I don't think I've ever heard it said in casual conversation, which is why I don't even know if it is pronouced poet taster or poet aster. Or even, as in the pun I saw it in most recently, a Poe taster. For some reason I always think of it being a poet with a qualification--I mean a poet in a qualified sense, or a dabbler, but if that -aster has to do with stars, as it does in disaster, it could mean a star poet, kind of like a poet laureate. Well, I'm sure it will all become quite obvious shortly...

Okay--a poetaster is a poet of inferior worth, or at best, one reputed to be of inferior worth. It comes from combining poet and the pejorative suffix -aster. How -aster came to be a pejorative is a bit beyond me. The online etymological dictionary has it that the suffix denotes things with an incomplete resemblance, using as an example a word I've never heard before 'patraster'--one who plays the father. So okay, the poetaster is one who plays the poet. I thought there might be a resemblance to the word manque, but that seemed too easy.

In the course of looking up the etymology, I came across this poem, which oddly mirrors my own path around this word. As the poet has given permission to blog his work as long as you mention his name, I will mention here that his name is Ronberge and he has a book of poems called Don't Think When Thriving!, which I have to admit is a pretty good title. But without further ado, his poem:

I dedicate this poem to all those who use the term poetaster; especially on me!

‘Poetaster! ’

The first time I read the word
I read it: ‘Poe – taster’
So I thought it meant someone who likes old Edgar Allan.
A least had a taste for his words
And tried hard to imitate his art
Not always with success
Doesn’t sound too much like an insult
Does it?
No Really
It got me curious
And I dug a little deeper…
Did some research on the subject
Don’t you just love a century
Where ignorance is a choice you make
By not typing a word or clicking on a button
By not searching for answers or not asking questions?
Here is what my research gave me
On that particular matter:
It was first used in a play
One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries
‘The Poetaster’
an Elizabethan satirical stage play,
written by a guy named Ben Jonson,
The term poetaster,
Meaning an inferior poet in the play
with pretensions to artistic value,
was coined by Jonson in this play.
And the wordplay itself
was actually on ‘disaster’
‘This poet was a disaster’
take out the ‘dis’
Pretty self-evident, yes?
Now I’ve always suspected that latin
Is not the forte of the many…
Anyone with a modicum
Of knowledge in etymology can spot it…
Take ‘Disaster’: it comes from two words
‘Dis’ meaning separation, negation, reversal
And ‘aster’ from ‘astrum’ meaning ‘star’
Literally meaning the star of reversal, of doom!
Follow me so far?
This was the old name for a comet
Who in the old days were thought of as a bad omen
So if you read the word
Then you can clearly see
That Literally
It means
‘Star – poet’!
No reversal here!

Hey you know what?
Go ahead and call me ‘Poetaster.’
The jokes gonna be on you.
Cause I figured something out
You weren’t clever enough to!




  1. I love it. Like most of these words, I've never heard it, but it makes a fun word to throw around when a friend throws out a bad rhyme just because they can.

  2. Oh, yeah--especially now that I know how to pronounce it.

    I forgot to mention that the portrait is of playwright Ben Jonson, who is apparently responsible for coining the word.