2022 – THE STORY SO FAR

The themes of the year so far can perhaps be summarised by my hasty posts in passing, on Twitter and elsewhere, in which I considered the keywords trending in the UK’s political and media discourse during the last days of January and the first days of February…

Scurrilous

Rather late to the party – sorry, ‘gathering’ – today’s word is ‘scurrilous.’ Defined by Dr Samuel Johnson as ‘using such language as only the licence of a buffoon could warrant.’ In her resignation letter yesterday Downing Street Policy Chief Munira Mirza accused Boris Johnson of ‘scurrilous’ behaviour when he falsely linked Keir Starmer to the failure to bring paedophile Jimmy Savile to justice. The word first appeared in English in the early 1500s in the form ‘scurrile’, coarsely joking, from the Latin ‘scurrilis’, buffoonlike, itself from the noun ‘scurra’ denoting a fashionable loafer, idler, buffoon, said to be a loan word from Etruscan.

Glee

On 2/2/22, as #BorisJohnson and #jimmysavile jointly trended for the second day, the word ‘glee’ was ascribed to both. It denotes barely repressed mirth/hardly concealed febrile joy and I think describes the desperate glint of triumph in the eyes of the abuser who once again goes unpunished. ‘Glee’ was Old English ‘gliu’, ‘gliw’, ‘gleow’ – entertainment, jest, play, also music and mockery – probably from Proto-Germanic ‘*gleujam’ but its only close relation was the rare Old Norse word ‘gly’ joy. All these are related to Old Germanic ‘gl-‘ words with senses of shining, smooth, radiant, joyful and Celtic cognates such as welsh ‘gloywa’, shining. Dictionary definitions of ‘glee’ note another nuance or connotation (more technically ‘semantic component’) which is often present: ‘exultation deriving from one’s own good fortune or another’s misfortune.’

Image

Airfix nostalgia

As Airfix promoted their 2022 calendar (cover picture above), I was asked again to explain the notion of ‘Airfix nostalgia’, an expression which mocks the delusion whereby nativists, patriots and bigots, most of them under the age of 50, like to imagine that they were personally involved in WWII or the British Imperial project. The reference is to the Airfix plastic modelling kits of fighter planes and warships bought by parents and children in the 50s and assembled at home.

Fib

In among rancorous ongoing denunciations of lying by those in public office (see elsewhere on this site and in this list by Peter Oborne*) came a passing invocation of – or attempt at disculpation by reference to – the lesser offence of ‘fibbing’. A fib is a ‘trifling lie’ or ‘white lie’, so I’m not sure it’s quite the right term in the current context, but it’s from the 1580s, the verb from 100 years later. Its exact origin and first use are uncertain, but it probably began as a jocular version of ‘fable’, perhaps reduplicated as ‘fibble-fable’ and then abbreviated to its modern form.

Rhubarb

When accused of being complicit in the authorising of an airlift of dogs from Afghanistan, PM Boris Johnson described the allegation as ‘total rhubarb’. The colloquial borrowing of the word to mean incomprehensible chatter or nonsense may have its origin in theatrical circles (as noted by Mark Peters in 2015**): it is again a telling choice of words: dated, euphemistic (like ‘mince’ as a euphemism for sh**t which seems similarly to be part of Tory groupspeak), obscure in the sense of being class/age-sensitive, hence condescending.

Endemicity

A new and tendentious, contentious example of #coronaspeak was added to my glossaries on this site in January 2022. The seemingly neutral, technical term was in fact employed in attempts to convince the public that the pandemic was subsiding and the coronavirus morphing into a less lethal presence in the community. Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani noted perceptively that ‘Endemicity’ is the rebranding of ‘herd immunity’ by the same people who were repeatedly wrong about how close we’ve been to achieving herd immunity. They’re now moving to claiming we’ve reached endemicity, regardless of what the term actually means – just like they did before.’

Lawfare/lethal aid

As the promoter of Brexit Arron Banks sued investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the US sent the first aid packages to Ukraine I added two key terms to the #weaponisedwords glossary on this site: #Lawfare, referring to vexatious litigation by a nation or individual, and ‘lethal aid’, a euphemism or (as lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield pointed out to me) a dysphemism for military assistance.

Languishing

Are you Languishing? - The Performance Room

In mid-January articles examined the effects of isolation and burnout after nearly two years of restrictions and confinement using a new characterisation of the condition***: ‘languish,’ from the 14th century, meaning to be feeble, listless, moribund or grieving, pining, is from Old French ‘languir,’ from Vulgar Latin ‘languire’ to be weak, faint, idle, from proto-IndoEuropean *'(s)leg’ the ancestor of ‘slack’, ‘lag’ and ‘lax’. ‘Anguish’ is unrelated.

The prospective and retrospective pathways to and from depravity are... |  Download Scientific Diagram

Depravity

Despite the blizzard of slurs and denigrations circulating on social media and in the mainstream press since 2019, some words have been conspicuous by their absence. One such began trending in the UK national conversation, and then only briefly, in mid-January. ‘Depravity’ in the sense of immorality, degeneracy was first recorded in English in 1641, not directly formed from the earlier verb ‘deprave’ (Old French ‘depraver’, pervert, accuse, from Latin ‘depravare’ distort, disfigure) but a version of the noun ‘pravity’ from Latin ‘pravitas’, crookedness, deformity, from ‘pravus’, crooked.

Guile

On January 7 my word of the day was ‘guile’ (first ascribed to the leader of HM Opposition, and then energetically disputed on social media: ‘…it took guile to convince so many on Labour’s left that he was the natural successor to Jeremy Corbyn’ –The Times) The noun, meaning cunning, artful ability to deceive and/or duplicity, was first recorded in the 12th century. It is from Old French ‘guile’ from Frankish ‘wigila’, ruse, from Proto-Germanic ‘*wihl’, ancestor of English wile(s), from Proto-IndoEuropean ‘*weik’, consecrated, holy.

*https://boris-johnson-lies.com/johnson-in-parliament

**https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/11/mark-peters-bullshit-word-of-the-day-rhubarb-is-a-tart-theatrical-term-for-bs.html

***https://theconversation.com/languishing-what-to-do-if-youre-feeling-restless-apathetic-or-empty-174994?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=bylinetwitterbutton

THE OTHER ‘P-WORD’ – Postmodernism comes of age – again

Postmodernity is modernity without the hopes and dreams which made modernity bearable. it is a hydra-headed, decentred condition in which we get dragged along from pillow [sic] to post across a succession of reflected surfaces, drawn by the call of the wild signifier.” – Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light, 1988

Among the toxic terms listed in the glossary of weaponised words, elsewhere on this site*, is a term that has seemed contentious and which has been imperfectly understood since its first appearance in the late Sixties. I included the same word – Postmodernism – in my 1993 book Fads, Fashions and Cults, provocatively subtitled ‘The definitive guide to post(modern) culture.’ When my book, which was aimed at a popular, not a scholarly readership, was launched in Slovenia and featured on national television the Slovene philosopher and critical theorist Mladen Dolar dismissed it as atheoretical and trivial, two other resonant terms which I was not sure whether to resent or to celebrate at the time. An extract from the offending title follows…

Elsewhere on this site I have tried to follow the trajectory of woke**, another, rather different toxic buzzword now favoured by the same side, the opponents of BLM, eco-activism, ‘leftist’ attitudes, in the so-called culture wars that rage on despite the pandemic. In a perceptive review in the New Statesman this week William Davies sets out postmodernism’s trajectory, its recent reimaginings and reiterations by very different interest groups. His article, with his kind permission, is here…

To end with for now, another extract from my antique 1993 guide. I am still pondering the present and possible future of the second p-word, along with other characterisations of our era such as late-modern, techno-modern, post-industrial, post-capitalist and the tension between the post-individual and hyperindividualism, also thinking about the way in which critical positions which were significant for me – Situationism and McLuhanism, for instance – are today ignored or forgotten, and how more recent terms that I think encode important insights – third places, heteroglossia, superdiversity – remain marginal and under-examined. I will try to unpack these musings on these pages very soon…

Post-Modernism, which deals with the past like one huge antique supermarket, looks very relevant indeed. Pastiche and parody is just an uncomfortable transition to a time when period references will be used without any self-consciousness.” – Peter York, Style Wars, 1980

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2021/01/25/woke-not-woke/

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

Another review of Stuart Jeffries‘ title, this time by Terry Eagleton, subsequently appeared in the Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/nov/10/everything-all-the-time-everywhere-by-stuart-jeffries-review-how-we-became-postmodern

‘WOKE’ NOT WOKE

activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral

The Woke and the Un-Woke - Tablet Magazine

UK feature-writer Sirin Kale took to Twitter last week to voice a complaint heard often recently, particularly from the ‘left’ and ‘centre-left’: ‘I would really like it if people stopped using “anti-woke” and “woke” as lazy journalistic descriptors when they can’t be bothered to actually spell out what a person’s views are. Say what they believe and the reader can decide for ourselves what we think of it.’ In the ensuing conversation @yoyomorena was blunt: ‘The sooner we can understand ‘woke’ as the anti-black, racist code it has become, the sooner we can get back to normal lives.’ Yesterday, on the same platform, a query by Tom Whyman pointed up the way a once-proud self-ascription by the socially aware had fully transited to become the go-to pejorative for conservative journalists and politicians, fighting back, as they see it, against an array of enemies: ‘Is it me or have the right wing press in the past few weeks started using the word ‘woke’ as if it refers to an organised political tendency, as opposed to just a loosely arranged constellation of things they don’t like?’ As if to furnish instant corroboration a Telegraph headline of the same date announced…

Image result for Citizens advice service' launches to help employees in woke

Citizens advice service’ launches to help employees in woke workplaces

The organisation will provide help to ‘casualties of the culture wars’

London journalist Kate Ng had asked me about the same red-flag-buzzword last week and her subsequent piece in the Independent is here…

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/woke-meaning-word-history-b1790787.html

As it has morphed from positive to negative in its connotations, (by 2019 Urban Dictionary‘s top definitions were emphatically negative: ‘The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’ and ‘Deluded or fake awareness’) woke has spawned elaborations along the way: woke-washing, by analogy with whitewashing and greenwashing, was coined to describe brands attempting to use, or at least proclaim, a concern for social justice as a marketing strategy; wokerati, woke-worthies and woke warriors dismiss critics of white privilege and social inequality, while Wokeahontas was invented in the US to define and mock a female enthusiast for native American rights.

The question that Kate and I had discussed briefly has not, I think, been raised before: must the victims of sneering and jeering by powerful opponents abandon their identity label, attempt somehow to reclaim it, or find a substitute for it? I canvassed an assortment of people, most of them it must be said not identifying as conservatives, on possible candidates to replace ‘woke’. Nobody suggested the words that progressives of my own generation once embraced; ‘radical’ or ‘liberationist’, but this is no surprise. The first now sounds ambiguous while the second was appropriated by neocons and conservatives in the US more than a decade ago. No real workable favourites emerged and no consensus was reached, but the formulations we considered are gathered in this wordcloud for what it’s worth…

An earlier article in the Guardian traces in some detail the trajectory that ‘woke’ has undergone, with useful comments on the controversies accompanying its mutation…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/21/how-woke-became-the-word-of-our-era

Why Any Literate Person Should Never Use the Word 'Woke' Ungrammatically -  Daily Squib

In March, after two months of articles in the conservative press excoriating the ‘woke agenda’ and its followers, came news, via the Sun, that steps were being taken to curb the influence of leftwing comedy…

https://www.thesun.co.uk/tv/14311062/bbc-tim-davie-axes-nish-kumar-the-mash-report/

In April Clyde McGrady wrote in The Washington Post about the parallel history of ‘cancel’, conservative America’s scare-word of choice…

And in the Guardian Evan Smith suggested that the UK right’s ‘war on woke’ is nothing new…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/21/conservatives-war-on-woke-loony-left-political-correctness?CMP=fb_cif

In late April, I came across a Twitter thread by Joshua Adams which sets out perceptively and pithily the links between the word’s transitions and Black responses to it…

JOSHUA@JournoJoshua Hope folks realize that a part of the reason the Right pounced on “woke” and now use it as a meaningless catch-all pejorative is because folks on the Left stripped it from its context in the Black experience, and made it mean “excessive social awareness.” It didn’t mean that.

Just over one year on, and none too soon I feel, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik writes on the failure of progressives to rally, and the role of the Labour ‘Opposition’ in this…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/feb/21/scared-woke-progressives-stand-culture-wars-labour

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.’

Image result for greased piglet

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…

https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/html5/#/radio1/21639391

A slightly longer version of the script…

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.

Image result for girly swot molesworth

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/

 

Image result for greased piglet

BEWARE BIGWIGS – and BIGWIGS BEWARE

Image result for blackadder ridiculous wig

 

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.

Image result for robert maxwell

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.’

 

Image result for mughal prince

 

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.

Image result for eminence grise

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.

Image result for impostor

 

*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

Image result for brexit debacle

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…

Image result for mountebank

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.

A Prince and a Poltroon posters & prints by Anonymous

Poltroon

This derogatory description of someone 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…

Image result for river flood ice breaking up

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.

Shattered green champagne bottle ... | Stock image | Colourbox

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.’