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.

 

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.

 

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.’

A GLOSSARY OF SKUNKED TERMS*, BREXITSPEAK and THE TOXIC TERMINOLOGY OF POPULISM

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I have been collecting new and controversial language generated by the rise of conservative populism in the US and the UK, by pro- and anti-Trump sentiment in the US and by the divisions resulting from the UK’s Brexit vote. This is a work in progress: the preliminary list of terms as it stands is below. Soon I plan to offer detailed definitions and comments (for example, the first word in the list is my own invention, intended to describe a statement, act or policy showing effrontery, and itself a deliberate affront to a section of the population) and a ‘lexical’ categorisation (into ‘jargon’, ‘slang, ‘catchphrase’, cliché, for instance).

**Please do contact me with new examples, with comments and with criticism, which will be gratefully acknowledged and credited.**

Affrontery

Airfix patriotism

Alpha

Alt-centre

Alt-right

Annexationist

Antifa

Anywheres

Astroturfing

Attitudinarian

Autohagiography

Backstop

Bad actors

Based

Beta

Birtherism

Bitterites

Black ops

Blowback

Bot

Both-sidesism

Breadcrumbs

Brectum

Bregressive

Bregret(s)

Bremain

Brengland

Brexiles

Brexit dividend

Brexiteer

Brexit means Brexit

Brexmageddon

Brexodus

Brextension

BRINO

Butthurt

Cakeism

Calling out

Cancel culture

Centrist dad

Cherry-picking

Civics

Civility

Classist

Cosmopolitan

Corbynista

Corporatocracy

Crash out

Crybaby

Cuck

Cultural marxist

Dead cat strategy

Deepfake

Deep state

Delegitimizer

Deplorables

DEXEU

Disaster capitalism

Disinformation

Divorce bill

Dogpile

Dog-whistle

Double down

Drain the swamp

DREAMer

Elite

Empty chair

Enablers

Ergo decedo

Establishment

Ethnics

Ethnonationalist

Ethno-state

Fake news

Fall off a cliff

False flag operation

Fashy

Feminazi

Finger-sniffer

Flextension

Fractionate

FUD

Gammon

Gammonista

Globalist

Guardianista

Hard Brexit

Hate goblin

Hatriot

High-vis nazis

Hobbit

Homonationalism

Hose it down

Identitarian

Incel

Indicative vote

Individual-1

Jambon jaunes

Jexodus

Kicking the can down the road

King baby

Kipper

Kompromat

Leave means leave

Lentil-weaving

Lexit

Libertarian

Libtard

Limp-wristed

Little Englander

Londonistan

Low-energy

MAGA

Magic Grandpa

Magic money tree

Majoritarian

Mangina

Manosphere

Masculinist

Matrixed

Maybot

Meaningful vote

Melt

Meninist

Metropolitan

Microaggression

Milkshake(d)

MSM

Nanny state

Nativist

Neglexit

Neon nazis

Neutrollization

No-deal

No-platforming

Normie

Optics

Palaeoconservative

Pearl-clutching

People’s vote

Pile on

Political correctness

Postmodern

Post-truth

Project Fear

Put/stick that on the side of a bus

QAnon

Quitlings

Rabble

Red lines

Red pill

Regrexit

Remainiacs

Remain plus

Remoanathon

Remoaner

Roll back

Rootless

Row back

Sadopopulism

Shadow blocking

Shire

Singapore-on-Thames

SJW social justice warrior

Skunked term

Snowflake

Soft border

Soft Brexit

Somewheres

Sovereignty

Soy-boy

Spartan phalanx

Sunlit uplands

Taking back control

Targeted individual

Tender-age shelter

Terf

Terminability

Throw under the bus

Tick tock

Tigger

Tofu-eating

Trexit

Tribal(ism)

Troll farm/factory

Truth-squadding

Tu quoque

Unicorns

Unspin

Urban

Vassal state

Village idiot

Virtue-signalling

Walk back

Weaponised

Whataboutery

White supremacist

Will of the people

Woke-washing

Yoghurt-knitting

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I’m grateful especially to the many contacts on Twitter who have already contributed to this modest project, and will credit them by name/handle when a final version is posted or published.

In February 2017 The New European published its own very useful lexicon, from which I have drawn, gratefully but without permission :

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/culture/the-new-lexicon-of-hate-a-disturbing-a-z-of-alt-right-language-1-4894833

And the BBC listed many of the technical – and some less technical – terms associated with Brexit earlier this year:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43470987

Last year Karl McDonald discussed the language used by Labour party leftists in the i newspaper:

https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/slugs-melts-inside-language-culture-corbynite-left/

And here’s Helen Lewis in the New Statesman on incivility in the UK:

https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2018/08/how-britain-political-conversation-turned-toxic

And Philip Seargeant on ‘fake news’:

https://infolit.org.uk/the-role-of-information-literacy-in-the-fight-against-fake-news/

In November 2018 The Guardian published a useful ‘jargon-buster’ guide to the terms being used at this late stage of (or impasse in, if you prefer) UK-EU negotiations:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/19/brexit-phrasebook-a-guide-to-the-talks-key-terms

Here Renee DiResta describes the ongoing ‘Information War(s)’ of which the manipulation of language is one component:

https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2018/11/28/the-digital-maginot-line/

I have only just come across this perceptive essay from 2017, by Otto English on his Pinprick blog, in which he coins the terms Ladybird libertarian and Ronseal academic:

Ladybird Libertarians: Dan Hannan, Paddington and the pernicious impact of 1970s children’s literature on Brexit thinking

In January 2019 James Tapper contributed this very perceptive assessment of Brexit metaphors:

https://daily.jstor.org/many-metaphors-brexit/

And in March, more from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190314-how-brexit-changed-the-english-language

In July 2019 the FT ran an interesting review of Boris Johnson’s press articles as precursors of ‘fake news’:

https://www.ft.com/content/ad141e8a-976d-11e9-9573-ee5cbb98ed36

 

*’Skunked terms’ are words or expressions undergoing a controversial change in meaning. Examples are ‘liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ which have transitioned from referring to leftist, progressive or centrist positions to denote neo-conservative or alt-right affiliations.

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GAMMON – UP AGAINST THE WALL

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This week, very late in the day, the mainstream UK media and the wider national conversation finally caught up with a social and political slur that had been trending for more than a year already. The insult in question was ‘gammon’, one of only a couple of pejorative labels (the other, slightly more affectionate, being ‘centrist dad’) directed from the left at the right as opposed to the many (‘libtard’, ‘snowflake’, ‘cuck’, etc.) routinely hurled in the other direction.

The word itself is British and denotes an orange-coloured side or slice of cooked ham or bacon often proposed as emblematic of the garish-looking, odd-tasting and nutritionally suspect dishes served (warm, with a pineapple garnish) across British tables in the 1970s (when, ironically, ‘gammon rasher’ was rhyming slang for ‘smasher’ in the sense of something superlative). Gammon was adopted from French gambon, from gambe meaning leg, in the 15th century, while backgammon is unrelated and probably comes from an old form of the verb to game.

Following the Times’ , the Express and the New Statesman’s belated discovery of the word Twitter was a-buzz on May 14, first with protests, many seemingly by gammons themselves, at what were alleged to be its racist and classist implications and then with more coherent attempts to unpack its real denotations and connotations.

Someone with the handle ‘Build a wall, line all the nazis up along it’ explained…

‘Gammon isn’t about class, it describes white ppl who spend a lot of their time being pink because they’re so angry being white doesn’t make them special’

Exasperated by ongoing witless misunderstandings, I added my own two-penn’orth…

‘Nothing to do with class, it denotes florid, loud, usually lardy middle-aged ranting bigots. #simples

By midday someone else had discovered a reference in Victorian literature that seemed to anticipate the modern usage…

My god, he’s right: @Protooptimism has discovered that Dickens used “gammon tendency” as a political insult in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9):

 

 

It’s not quite clear whether Dickens’ use of the word relates to the slang sense then prevalent in the underworld, of ‘gammon’, verb and noun, to mean (‘to use) the secret, deceitful language of thieves and tricksters’, hence applicable perhaps to jingoism and bluster on the part of a ‘fervid’ middle-aged blowhard. An intriguing correlation with Irish was noted by another commentator…

No linguists paid much attention at the time to the mutation of gammon from a collective term of abuse for a constituency or persuasion to a label applied to the individual members thereof. The BBC, though, yesterday carried a good, level-headed history of the expression’s first post- Brexit referendum appearances and its rise to prominence…

http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-44108080

Urban Dictionary‘s original entry, if you can find it,  could be commended, but it seems subsequently to have been cosmeticised by a gammonista…

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gammon

By the end of a long day the furore (by now dubbed ‘gammongate’) had somewhat subsided, leaving a few wry observational tweets…

Presume after today, use of a certain type of roasted ham as an insult will be prohibited. Hope there’s a gamnesty on previous usage.’

‘Since the words ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ both started as insults, I fully expect British politics to soon be contested between the Gammon Party and the Melt Party.’

‘It’s offensive to call people whose reactionary apoplexy makes them go pink-faced “gammons”. The correct term is “people of choler”.’

And, late news, this, perhaps (but unlikely to be) the last word, again from Twitter, this morning…

JamieJones77‏ @JamieJones77

‘I’m a 55 year old white thinning cropped haired old punker. #Gammon isn’t racist, it perfectly describes the bigoted tossers of my own age group who turn pink when they get angry about their privilege being challenged. G’wan bust yer blood vessels you rancid foaming dinosaurs.’

…Five days on I discovered this, from the originator of the expression himself…

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/gammon-brexiteers-angry-white-men-middle-age-immigration-a8352141.html

…and, very belatedly indeed, I was reminded of this excellent summary by A-level teacher and language buff Dan Clayton

http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.com/2018/06/telling-porkies-about-gammon.html

 

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In November this year Collins Dictionaries listed the g-word among their words of the year. In the Guardian Poppy Noor argued that the left should steer clear of such name-calling…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/gammon-playground-insult-words-of-2018