The phrase “namby-pamby,” which describes a person who is weak, childish and sentimental, owes its origins to what was essentially the original group of literary Mean Girls: poets Henry Carey, John Gay, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, against fellow poet and unapologetic social climber Ambrose Phillips.
According to Phrase Finder, which has a more exhaustive story here, poet Ambrose Phillips was appointed as a royal tutor to King George I’s children. Apparently, he took the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the king through his poetry, which took on a syrupy sweet tone as he wrote scads of poems in praise of the royal offspring.
From Phrase Finder:
Thou, thy parents pride and care,
Fairest offspring of the fair
When again the lambkins play,
Pretty sportlings, full of May
Such syncophantic rambling caught the attention of Phillips’ poetic peers, and pretty soon, they began to mock him mercilessly, using the same re-duplicated, rhyming style Ambrose used. They nicknamed him “Namby-Pamby.”
Alexander Pope featured a caricature of Phillips in his poem The Dunciad:
“Beneath his reign, shall … Namby Pamby be prefer’d for Wit!”
But fellow poet Henry Carey gave Phillips perhaps the worst of it, in 1725:
All ye poets of the age,
All ye witlings of the stage …
Namby-Pamby is your guide,
Albion’s joy, Hibernia’s pride.
Rhimy-pim’d on Missy Miss
From the navel to the knee;
That her father’s gracy grace
Might give him a placy place.
All I have to say to that is… ouch.