DE-CODING SUPER SATURDAY’S BREXIT MOMENT

Today, we are told, is ‘Super Saturday’: not the last Saturday before Christmas, a bumper time for retailers, but an extraordinary weekend sitting of the UK parliament, only the third since the outbreak of World War 2 and this time to debate what one commentator has risked dubbing the ‘Brexit Moment’. Connoisseurs of new and exotic language can add to Super Saturday and Brexit Moment a pair of novel expressions trending in the same context: ‘greased piglet’ was the epithet bestowed by former PM David Cameron on his successor, explaining  that ‘the thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.’ The piglet himself appealed this morning for our ‘better angels’ to heal divisions (and do his bidding), a slightly puzzling evocation of Abraham Lincoln’s ringing words: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’

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To accompany this morning’s unfolding developments RTE Radio asked me to record a commentary on these and other language innovations for their Irish listeners, and this is what I said…

In struggling to keep abreast of the momentous events, the dramatic political developments generated recently by populism on both sides of the Atlantic, we have all of us  had to contend, too, with a rising tide of new language – exotic and unfamiliar new terms, old terms repurposed and weaponised, slang, jargon, catchphrases and slogans coming at us on a scale and at a speed not seen before in my lifetime.

I have been collecting the language of Trumpism, of Brexit and of the new alignments in politics, society and the media. I’m doing this because, as a linguist and a dictionary-maker it’s my responsibility not only to record but to make sense of new language, not only looking at its simple definitions but at its deeper, sometimes hidden implications and the hidden agendas and real intentions of the people who are using it.

I’m compiling what I call a glossary of the toxic terminology of populism*, a list of over 400 words and expressions which is growing by the day. Just a few moments ago I added the phrase ‘mediaeval methods’, a euphemism for torture used yesterday by the UK government to describe what they intend to apply to get MPs to back their latest Brexit deal.

George Orwell long ago exposed the twisting of truth and the hypocrisies of political language, but he was living in a much much simpler world. The language I am working with – novel notions like the Backstop, new idioms like dog-whistle and dogpile, jargon like identitarian, pathocracy or factuality – is not straightforward and not neutral or innocent. These are expressions designed to describe a changing social landscape, but also often designed to baffle, to bamboozle and confuse, to manipulate us. This of course is not new – the language of advertising and of politics has been doing this for a long time, but the multichannels, platforms and outlets and the multimedia techniques employed are far more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before.

Americans refer to words as ‘skunked’ if their meanings have become distorted and they become toxified, so that elite, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, snowflake and melt become slurs; libertarian, which once meant progressive, now refers to the far right, politically correct and social justice warrior and virtue-signalling are insults. When Boris Johnson calls his predecessor a girly swot, accuses a critic of humbug, the cosy, dated words are uttered with barely concealed venom.

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In the UK we still prize a sense of humour and some terms do sound lighthearted: cakeism is wanting to have your cake and eat it  – this time used by the EU against the UK for once – when Jeremy Corbyn is described as a magic grandpa or the absolute boy, the comments are double-edged to say the least. The so-called centrist dad (I’m probably one myself) is not just an ageing moderate but a feeble, cowardly enabler of the far right; magic money tree and unicorn are definitely not meant to be funny, and gammon** describes a ruddy-faced apopleptic male, invariably a Brexit supporter, but the word is an expression of genuine hate by the left.

There are some ironic phrases I find funny despite their serious intent: one is ‘Airfix Patriotism’ – Airfix sold plastic kits in the 50s and 60s for making model warplanes, and dads and kids would buy them and stick them together  with glue, evoking the heroic actions of pilots in the second world war – the patriotic rantings of the right today have been seen as based not on any understanding of our history but on a caricatured, kitsch vision of a heroic past. In the same way Ladybird libertarians base their false memories of an idyllic England on the beautiful watercolour illustrations in the Ladybird childrens books and on comics and tea-towels rather than social realities.

The terms that irritate me, though, are the clichés, catchphrases and slogans endlessly repeated; take back control, get it done, the will of the people, Brexit means Brexit…

There are scientific, technical-sounding words being bandied about which actually describe frightening changes in power relations: ethnonationalism, nativism, pathocracy (the rule of sociopaths and psychopaths), sadopopulism (strongman rulers who end up victimising even their own supporters) and even homonationalism – the co-opting of LGBT issues to advance a racist ideology.

Donald Trump is famous for the crudity of his language, but the metaphors used in political discourse in the UK have also moved further and further into the realm of conflict, warfare, occupation and collaboration: first directed at our supposed enemies in the EU, traitor, betrayal, saboteur are now aimed at anyone at home – quitlings or quislings – rabble – who fails to toe the party line with enough enthusiasm. Academics in the US and UK are analysing the rhetoric and the metaphors but tend to discuss these things with each other I want to talk to the public, to make people more aware.

Of course new circumstances do demand new language and some expressions just fill what linguists call a ‘lexical gap’ in the language: both-sidesism, whataboutery, de-platforming, cancel culture all were coined to describe concepts that didn’t exist or weren’t so important in the past, the whole vocabulary of Brexit, including the word itself is unprecedented. It sometimes feels as if our whole reality is unprecedented, and we, whether we lean to the right or to the left, just wish it would stop, but it’s not over yet: inevitably there will be much more verbiage, rhetoric, toxic terminology, to come…

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/08/23/a-glossary-of-skunked-terms-brexitspeak-and-the-toxic-terminology-of-populism/

**https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/05/15/gammon-up-against-the-wall/

 

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BEWARE BIGWIGS – and BIGWIGS BEWARE

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Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.

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With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.

While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’

 

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In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’

‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.

On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:

https://www.amazon.com/Nabob-Sob-Very-Johnnie-1951-57/dp/B01AXLWSBE …

Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.

I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.

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In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.

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*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’

NATIVISATIONS, PEJORATIVES, INKHORNS AND MULTISYLLABICS

 

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It seems an apt moment to highlight some of my favourite words: adoptions from other languages that have subsequently become partly or wholly ‘nativised’ – that is, admitted into English usage despite their exotic origins and overtones.

As an unashamed poseur (‘one who puts on airs, affects an attitude or style, usually to impress others’, from French poser, to place or put, first attested in 1869) and a dilettante (‘one who casually cultivates or dabbles in arts and/or literatures, from Italian dilettare, to delight (in), first attested in 1733), I have been accused of being a flâneur to boot, but take this as a compliment, as it uses the French verb flâner, ‘to wander’ or ‘saunter’, to describe a sophisticated, idler, perusing at their leisure the novelties and curiosities of the urban cavalcade*. As you can tell, I have always been drawn to fanciful, colourful terms, particularly when they serve as critiques or slurs (some of them are traditionally gendered as male, but feminine counterparts are now permitted, even in the countries of origin). Here is a small selection of examples, with more to follow shortly…

 

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Mountebank

The word means a swindler, fraud or trickster and comes from the Italian invocation  monta in banco! ‘climb on the bench!’ supposedly directed to a seller of quack remedies, later known as a montambanco (the word which was anglicised in the 16th century), who mounts a platform in a fair or public place to peddle their wares to credulous onlookers.

Charlatan

Almost a synonym for mountebank, the charlatan was a seller of useless remedies, later generalised as a fraud, a fake, a dissembling hypocrite. The word is from Italian ciarlare, to babble, as in blustering, bamboozling sales-talk practised by a ciarlatano, which became French charlatan whence the early 17th-century English borrowing.

Parvenu

A snobbish term of condescension, contempt and dismissal, the French word literally denotes someone who has arrived, ultimately from the Latin verb pervenire, ‘to come to, reach’. Its sense in French and later in the English of the early 19th century is a social climber who has attained or claimed a social position that they do not deserve. It is a near-synonym for arriviste, also French, adopted in the early 1900s to sneer at someone who has recently acquired undeserved and unaccustomed status – but without managing to gain the esteem that would normally accompany such success.

 

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Poltroon

This derogatory description of some who is considered foolish, embarrassing, craven and pitiable, is said to come from the Italian poltro, ‘sluggard’ or ‘coward’ which became poltron in Middle French before being picked up by English speakers who were particularly fond of deploying it during the 18th century. The Italian ancestor possibly derives from Latin pullus, ‘a young chicken’, ultimate origin of the English pullet and poultry.

Rentier

Another more technical French categorisation (normally given its French pronunciation), adopted into English in 1798 and often employed as a pejorative, can refer to an individual or social class or cohort whose income derives from property, a form of capitalism which profits by monopolising access to property, or a state deriving national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources. Rente in French denotes dividend or income and rentier  (first recorded in 1650) referred to persons of ‘independent means’, typically landowners and landlords, thus could be applied to the ‘idle rich’. ‘Rentier capitalism’ describes the collecting of income from rents,  investment or dividends rather than from labour or productive activities and without reinvesting in socially worthwhile schemes.

The unattractive characters listed here are often instrumental in provoking disasters, catastrophes and confusions, for which, again, we have in the past raided our neighbours’ lexicons in search of more sonorous, memorable pejoratives…

 

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Debacle

This word, denoting an utter, often humiliating disaster, is the French débâcle, popularised in the troubles of 1848 and then meaning a collapse, a downfall, an unleashing of chaos. It derives from the verb débâcler, from earlier desbacler meaning to unbar in the sense of removing a river barrier and permitting a damaging outflow of ice and floodwater. The literal sense became a technical geological and engineering term in English in 1802, followed a little later by the figurative use.

Fiasco

The word, of Italian origin, again came to us via French, first attested in 1855 as theatrical slang for a botched performance or flop. By 1862 it was being used outside the theatre for an ignominious failure or embarrassing disaster. It comes via the French phrase faire fiasco ‘result in a failure’ from Italian far fiasco,  literally ‘make a bottle,’ (fiasco is Late Latin flasco, the origin of English flask). Nobody is certain whether the original idea evoked was the accidental or clumsy smashing of a bottle or the loser of a game of chance having to buy the winners a bottle of wine. I should perhaps add that my old friend, the musician F. Robert Lloyd, tells me from Paris that in the French of the 50s and 60s fiasco could refer, in polite speech, to a gentleman’s inability to ‘perform’ in an intimate, non-theatrical context.

 

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Farrago

Now in English denoting a confused mishmash or mess, a jumble of ridiculous notions or disorganised ideas, farrago began as a Latin term for cattle-fodder made up of different ingredients and was borrowed, via Italian, in the 1600s.

Rodomontade

This sonorous multisyllabic word could easily be dismissed as an ‘inkhorn term’, an obscure, little-known and archaic, not to say outrageously pretentious usage (first attested in 1543 – a word imported or used unnecessarily by scholars who dipped their pens in inkwells made of horn), but I like it and try to insert it into my conversations as often as possible. It means boastful, inflated talk and/or behaviour and was based on the name Rodomonte, a King of Algiers and a braggart, in the early 17th-century Italian epic poems Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso. In a similar vein fanfaronade is a nice description of arrogant, boastful talk. It may also denote a military fanfare and comes from fanfarrón, a word still used in Spanish to mean a show-off, blusterer or blowhard. Very rarely used, but surely very useful, and very timely is pasquinade which means a satire or lampoon, typically posted provocatively in a public place. It is inspired by the ‘Pasquino’ statue of a male torso displayed in Rome, on which the learned would attach verses and where wits would stick anonymous barbs and mocking diatribes.

Imbroglio

A confused, chaotic and embarrassing entanglement. The term was adopted into English in the mid 18th century, first in the sense of ‘jumble’, then more specifically in reference to diplomatic or political misunderstandings. The word is Italian for a tangle or muddle from broglio, confusion, intrigue, snarl-up and the derived verb imbrogliare.

Brouhaha

Meaning an agitated hubbub, a confused uproar, an overexcited reaction – especially in cases when a minor incident is exaggerated – the word was borrowed in the late 19th century from 15th century French. It may be imitative of the noise of public clamour, and is thought to have been the sound of the devil laughing as performed in morality plays. Some authorities derive it from a mangling of the Hebrew barukh habba – ‘blessed be the one who comes.’

You may well find my lucubrations (‘archaic – a learned or pedantic piece of writing’) rocambolesque –  far-fetched, fantastic, grotesquely inappropriate, from Ponson du Terrail’s character Rocambole** – and you may detect a hint of persiflage (light irreverent bantering) – but surely you’ll admit they are topical. There are other such expressions in my files which deserve to feature in this list and I will add them shortly – but please feel free, as Twitter acquaintances have already, to donate your own examples, for which I will thank and credit you, as long as you don’t mean them personally…

 

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*cavalcade, by the way, is yet again from Italian, this time from cavalcata, a procession, passing show, from cavalcare ‘to ride’, based on Latin caballus ‘horse’.

** from Spanish ‘carambola’, from Malaysian for Starfruit, meaning also bumping and trickery. Rocambole denotes several types of leek and garlic – and a ‘Brazilian Swiss Roll’ apparently. In today’s French it means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘over-the-top.’