Tony Thorne’s collection of cultural keywords, The 100 Words That Make The English, was published by Abacus in 2011


At the very moment of writing I’ve glanced at the Daily Telegraph newspaper (I buy it for the Court Circular) and noticed one of those ongoing debates on the letters page, triggered this time by a reader’s claim that social class can be judged by the texture of the marmalade on the breakfast table, thick-cut being favoured by patricians, medium, aptly, by Middle England and thin, less aptly, by the lumpen masses. The mainly good-humoured reactions include observations by ‘deviant’ lovers of (inevitably thin-cut) lemon marmalade, of thick-cut spread on fried eggs, an assertion that ‘the best people have honey’, and a slight digression by a Mr Mansfield of Chelmsford: ‘Sir – Is it also true that crumpets are consumed by the working class and muffins by the middle class, while ownership of a toasting fork is deemed upper class?’ which begs a number of questions. The eponymous crumpet is discussed in this book, so no more of that here. The traditional English griddle-cake muffin (probably from Muffe, 18th century Low German for a small cake) is now a rarity, and I don’t think the spongey American-style fruit or chocolate flavoured cupcakes of the same name (which gave us the slang ‘muffin-top’ for a bulging midriff) are what the correspondent had in mind. The only toasting forks I have seen recently have been used for cooking marshmallows over campfires – another American custom – but perhaps I’m moving in the wrong circles. And the other members of what a lexicologist would term a ‘lexical set’, the teacake and the scone – where do they stand?

Three days ago broadcaster Edward Stourton (sometime presenter of the Today programme, usually characterised as ‘Old Etonian’, ‘posh’ or ‘toff’ or a combination thereof) confirmed persistent rumours that the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the nation’s favourite grannie, habitually referred to our fellow EU members as ‘Huns, wops and dagos’. Today he has had to apologise for referring to her as ‘a ghastly old bigot’ (borrowed from French in the 16th century, bigot was, perhaps appropriately here, a rude nickname for the hegemonic Normans: it is also, of course, the word that helped bring down Gordon Brown). Although it’s now November, I’ve noticed that a nearby pub has been flying the flag of England, the red and white cross of St George, something that makes me slightly uneasy. It either means that I’ve missed some crucial international footballing fixture or else that the pub has become a haven for what sociologists have started to call ‘nativists’, in other words English ultra-patriots, in many cases, not to mince words, ghastly bigots. Freely associating brings back memories of Euro 2004 when, before England’s game against France in Portugal, 30 million of these flags were sold, ‘to be’ according to our jingoistic press, ‘set fluttering from every shade and model of car, driven by English men and women of every age, religion, culture and class’. The red and white banner is still regularly to be seen on the back of Vauxhall cars or flying above churches on St George’s Day, and there’s another connection: I remember comedian Russell Brand, (a very different sort of national treasure, before being disgraced for lewd behaviour on air, then resurrected as a Hollywood star), apologising earlier this year for being absent from the country on St George’s Day which he was celebrating in the USA. He did graciously confide that he was proud to be English, ‘But we can’t go around, draped in the flag, dressed as Pearly Kings and Queens, belting out Vera Lynn songs.’ As if expecting the perennial argy-bargy (a 19th-century reduplication of Scottish dialect ‘argle’, argue) over defining Englishness to kick in he added, ‘We know what it is to be English.’

It’s these seemingly trivial cultural flurries that THE 100 WORDS delights in. Crumpets, the Hun, flag-waving and Pearly Kings are tokens that we reach for when we reassert our membership of, to use the very latest jargon, a ‘community of circumstance’ calling itself for convenience ‘the English’. Senior royals (in everyday vernacular the upstart ‘royals’ supplanted ‘the royal family’ in the mid-1990s and has since appeared 33000 times in the Daily Mirror alone), and virtuosos of smut (from Middle English ‘smitte’ and ‘smot’, meaning ‘stain’ and related to ‘smudge’) in the Max Wall tradition are among the ‘beacons of iconicity’ (an abomination perpetrated by publicists for the 2012 Olympics…or was it ‘icons of beaconicity’?), folklore figures that seem to symbolise the conflicted national character.

Since the mid-1990s, arguments about what it means to be ‘British’ or ‘English’ have intensified, prompted both by ‘top-down’ political edicts on devolution and citizenship and by ‘bottom-up’ agitations from a disoriented public. In writing about Englishness and the English cultural analysts refer to abstracts such as the well-known ‘deference’, ‘reticence’, ‘scepticism’ and ‘deferred gratification’ (all in their estimations gone or endangered) and the less predictable, hence more interesting, ‘narcissism, ‘self-importance’ and ‘imaginary’ (as noun, not adjective, by which they mean something like ‘collective fantasy’). They pontificate about shifts in attitude using labels like ‘hedonism’, ‘consumerism’ or (a nice recent example) ‘pathological individualism’, to suggest that we have abandoned one set of behaviours for a radically different one. Occasionally they neologise in an attempt to get at an elusive truth, as with anthropologist Kate Fox’s ‘dis-ease’; collective anxiety stemming from a lack of social skills and fear of intimacy, or ‘cognitive polyphasia’, MORI opinion pollster Ben Page’s term for the condition of holding multiple contradictory beliefs at the same time. Lifestyle journalists, like Decca Aitkenhead writing in 1997, love to generalise in a more conversational style: ‘They wear clothes they are painfully unsure about, dance uneasily to music they don’t know and tell each other bad jokes they heard on Radio 1…’

Though a few loaded keywords like ‘class’ and ‘decency’ are shared with the commentariat, attempts by ‘ordinary’ members of the public to define Englishness usually have a very different flavour. A trawl of postings and interviews throws up: ‘Englishness: the Queen, fairness, tolerance, strawberries & cream, support the underdog’ (– Anon): ‘this is england and curry is not an english tradition i am just preparing sunday lunch roast beef with all trimmings i have been to church singing beautiful english hymns this is england at its best’ (- Val S. Oxon, in the original spelling), and ‘I know I need foreign help to keep farming and Ukip will put an end to those workers coming here, but Englishness is a delicate tree and I think, if we need to pollard a few branches to protect the rest, it is worth it.’ (- Gary Andrews, Cotswold farmer and UK Independence Party supporter). ‘We don’t know who we are: we’re not British, we’re not Scottish or Welsh: we’re partly the powerful nation of yore and partly dispossessed’ laments an English football fan without a nation state to cling to, adding ‘it’s an extraordinary position to be in’. Despite the agonising by pundits and proles it seems that the quest for the essence of Englishness is futile. It’s like a question to which no adequate answer can be given, but that doesn’t mean that we will stop asking, even when the question is fatuous (17th century, from Latin fatuus, ‘gaping’). A recent poll of young Asians required them to quantify how British they felt ‘as a percentage’, without any attention being paid to what ‘Asian’, ‘British’, ‘young’ or ‘felt’ might mean, let alone whether one’s feeling of allegiance or belonging to something so hard to define might vary from day to day.

It’s absurd to look for Englishness in ethnicity, in DNA, as Daniel Defoe pointed out as along ago as 1703. Recollecting the ebb and flow of invaders and mercenaries pre-1066 he quipped, ‘From this amphibious ill-born mob began/
That vain ill-natured thing, an Englishman…/In eager rapes and furious lust begot/ Betwixt a painted Briton and a Scot…/ From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came/ With neither name nor nation, speech nor fame.’ At different times in the same verse satire Defoe both anticipated the celebrating of diversity: ‘…the multitudes of foreign nations who have taken sanctuary here have been the greatest additions to the wealth and strength of the nation,’ and adopted the voice of the anti-immigration xenophobe:We have been Europe’s sink, the jakes [toilet] where she/ Voids all her offal outcast progeny.’

We could simply dismiss all the verbiage and the bluster (15th century from Low German blüsteren, ‘to storm’), as two recent commentators have done, ‘…to truly belong in a country and be committed to it only requires that you respect the rule of law and see the government and its civic institutions as the legitimate instruments for making and implementing those laws.’ (philosopher Julian Baggini), ‘Give me a nation of people who pay their taxes, honour democracy and treat each other with respect and I couldn’t care less how British they ‘feel’’. (journalist Dave Hill).

At a more rarefied level proponents of cultural theory, which is largely based on ideas from linguistics, have an agenda. They want to clear away our preconceptions and demonstrate that a ‘liberal’ world-view based on ideas of nationhood, the ‘grand narratives’ of heritage and history and the autonomous individual are illusory. They prefer to say that culture and identity are symbolic representations formed of, or in, ‘discourse’ – that is language in its widest sense. Culture is an interplay of different discourses: public discourse, the language of government and officialdom; media discourses, the language of show business, broadcasting, the press (including ‘journalese’ – the short sharp headline words, the clichés and stylistic quirks favoured by journalists) and advertising; private discourse, the language of ordinary people in everyday situations – difficult to access but identifiable in readers’ letters to newspapers, published diaries, Internet chat-rooms and txt msgs. In a ‘technologised’ society based on ‘hyperconnectivity’ it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate these varieties or styles, as the audience – the public – borrows from the media who themselves have borrowed from the street or the club, and everyone becomes complicit in the national conversation, shot through as it is by the jargon of fashion, music, therapy and business. Although their attempts to deconstruct the idea of national identity are attempts to destabilise, devalue, ultimately to discredit it, the cultural theorists are right about one thing. If we are looking for Englishness, it is in language that we will find it.

And so in getting to grips with Englishness THE 100 WORDS focuses on language, more specifically on individual words, though larger ‘lexical units’ such as slogans and catchphrases are mentioned in passing. Words, even the brusquest ones, are not one-dimensional things, but complex bundles of meanings and associations. The relatively uncomplicated word ‘stallion’, for instance, has within it two essential semantic components, combining the base ideas ‘horse’ and ‘male’. But any close-up analysis would have to consider the word’s additional connotations of ‘virile’, ‘strong’, ‘spirited’. Stallion, used figuratively rather than as a neutral description, with its suggestion of impressive dominance, might be contrasted with ‘mare’, a word that in the combination ‘brood-mare’ emphasises a passive, one-dimensional, purely procreative function, and in English working-class slang has always been derogatory, denoting a drab, wearisome female…taking us from semantics to gender controversies in a couple of steps. Words are unstable, too, in the sense that they may have meant different things at different times, or may be interpreted in different ways according to their user and her/his audience. In offering definitions, comments on typical usage and etymologies, dictionary-makers have to affect a cheerful omniscience, but know that they cannot finally be objective. Words are part of the psychic furniture of tens of millions of individuals, for each one of whom any individual word may have quite unique resonances. The language teacher’s two reductionist benchmarks for determining acceptable usage; ‘intelligibility’ (can it be understood?) and ‘appropriacy’ (is it suitable for its context?) don’t fully take account of the fact that ‘lexemes’ (words, phrases and longer formulations) may also encode values and allegiances, determine behaviour, trigger emotions, and these ‘affective’ aspects are precisely what this book deals in.

It’s artificial, too, to do what dictionary format demands and treat words in isolation, as, in practice in their real-world settings of speech and writing, they are found alongside ‘co-text’, the language that surrounds them. Single instances or sequences of language operate within a mosaic or web known as ‘intertextuality’, the whole interpenetrating influence of prior expressions, forms of expression, rules for expressing. Anyone scripting a sitcom or soap set in wartime, for instance, is likely to draw upon pre-existing stock characters and situations, verbal and visual allusions to other genres such as newsreels, documentaries and ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure books, to quote, to paraphrase or to parody famous speeches, to repeat jokes, proverbs and received opinions. Linguists also see words as part of ‘semantic fields’, the cluster of terms in any given language that are closest to them in meaning, so focusing, for example, on yob should entail a sideways glance at the equally well-established ‘hooligan’, ‘lout’, and ‘layabout’, together with the more recent ‘ASBO’ and ‘hoodie’. In the same way looking at ‘collocations’, the way certain words are routinely combined in a particular language can lead us into intriguing complexities. To ‘lay down one’s life’ (eg ‘for one’s country’) looks like a natural formulation to us, but French uses instead the verb ‘sacrifice’, evoking an image of personal heroism, rather than ‘lay down’, once perhaps referring to prostrating oneself on an altar or block, but now suggesting surrender of weapons, making the pun ‘to lay down one’s wife for one’s country’ (supposedly demanded of aristocratic English husbands by the heir to the throne) even more taxing to translate. Too few of us have a command of any other linguistic system, let alone an ability to shift in and out of different ways of encoding our experiences – what linguists call ‘code-switching’ or ‘crossing’ between languages or dialects. So translation is another way of defamiliarising or ‘de-centring’ a concept in order to try and objectify it – how do the French express the ideas we encode by way of the word gentle for instance? Despite the fact that we took the word from them centuries ago, there is now no single term in French that does justice to the nuances our word has acquired. Matching our keywords with their equivalents or lack thereof in other languages can enable us to highlight, compare and contrast cultural attitudes and peculiarities. Linguists have shown that clusters of words which describe the most essential social relationships, such as the synonyms for ‘friend’; chum, ‘pal’, or ‘mate’ in English, don’t have precise equivalents in other languages and even convey different senses when used by English speakers outside the UK. Some ethnolinguists and semanticists – notably the Polish-Australian Anna Wierzbicka – have grappled with culture-specific concepts and the supposedly ‘untranslatable’ keywords (Russian pošlost’ which covers a spectrum of meaning from ‘shameful’, through ‘commonplace’ to naff; the many native Australian words for sand, not one of which equates to the English word, etc.) that embody them in attempts to explain the inner workings and inner life of a people to outsiders. THE 100 WORDS adopts this approach with English and Englishness, largely for the benefit of ‘natives’ this time, but not by way of a technical or academic study. The book is designed for the ‘general reader’ – the broadminded and curious explorer willing to fight their way through a hotchpotch of references and allusions, a smattering of quotations, a series of collisions between scholarly inquiry and wilful frivolity. Although entries are in alphabetical order, this is not a traditional reference book; it is biased, opinionated and selective.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s