When proper names become slurs – and Karen, Ben and Chad can rest assured, it’s nothing new
I spoke last week to Ellie Muir of the Independent about the way in which certain given names have recently been appropriated in popular culture and the media for use as labels, catch-all stereotypes – or slurs. One focus of Ellie’s piece is the use of the name Karen on social media and as a meme to evoke an over-assertive, unreasonably demanding or hypercritical white woman (memorably epitomised as ‘an antivaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair’). Karen is a Danish version of Katherine dating from the Middle Ages and adopted by English speakers from the 1940s. Originally a Black US nickname for a stereotypical white woman perceived as overbearing and entitled, Karen was most popular as a baby name in 1965 in the US, so would typically denote a Generation X female, it went viral in 2017.
In the USA in the early 80s Valley Girls and college students used to refer to their sporty, macho ‘jock’ contemporaries as biftads, inspired by the fact that many of them were nicknamed ‘Biff’ or ‘Tad’. Much more recently the online incel community of frustrated, embittered, uncharismatic males has used Chad to denote a successful alpha male who is popular with women (his black counterpart would be Tyrone).
In the UK names like Sharon, Tracy and Mandy were earlier employed to evoke stereotypical working class, vulgar females or chavs (notably in the sitcom Birds of a Feather and in Viz comic), while from the 70s through to the early 90s, Rupert, Tarquin and Nigel were used to mock supposed toffs or ‘posho’ males and are sometimes still heard today. Kevins or Kevs were uncouth, uncultured young British males from the end of the 70s until the end of the 90s, causing much amusement when the same name became cool and fashionable in the US and France in the 80s. Wayne was used in the same way. Around the same time London youths looking for dates referred to girls as Becks (this was pre ‘Posh and Becks’ as nicknames of a Spice Girl and her footballer escort by the way) because so many North London Jewish girls were called Rebecca or Becky. In the mid-2000s teenage girls thought to be too earnest, awkward or just unpopular were dismissed as Megs, the name possibly inspired by the daughter of the same name in the TV animated comedy Family Guy. Some older London males nicknamed middle-aged females, especially if deemed to be frumpish or charmless, Noras or Dorises.
A research portal for scholars, the press and the public
The Slang and New Language Archive was created in 1994 while I was Director of the Language Centre at King’s College London. The archive, consisting of a small library of books and periodicals and a number of databases and sub-directories, was designed as a repository for the collection, storage and dissemination of new language, in particular examples of nonstandard varieties of English such as slang, jargon and buzzwords. The archive was later expanded to take in examples of media language, political language, linguistic curiosities and etymologies. It remains a resource, unique in the UK, assisting researchers, students, teachers and journalists, as well as non-specialists, in accessing information about aspects of contemporary language that are under-represented in traditional dictionaries and reference works.
This link will take you to the Archive webpage at King’s College, where there are further links to relevant articles and published sources…
Glossaries from the archive may be accessed on this site by entering keywords, such as slang, jargon, MLE (Multiethnic London English), familect (highly colloquial language used in the home), coronaspeak (language related to the COVID-19 pandemic) and weaponised words (the contentious language of Brexit and populism) and slurs (racist and misogynist terms) in the search box. Once you have accessed a post of interest, check the tags and categories at the foot of the page for other articles or glossaries on the same topic.
Two of the larger archive datafiles are hosted on Aston University’s Institute of Forensic Linguistics Databank site. These are a glossary of current youth slang…
Please note that the King’s archive focuses principally on contemporary language, that is terms used from the twentieth century to the present day. If you are interested in historical slang, I strongly recommend the monumental work by my associate, the British lexicographer Jonathon Green. His dictionary, now generously freely available online, lists current and historical slang terms with timelines and citations illustrating their usage and development…
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…
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral
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 (dating from an exhortation by blues singer Leadbelly in 1938 to ‘stay woke…keep your eyes open’) 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…
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…
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…
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…
In late April, I came across a Twitter comment 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.
Joshua more recently posted longer articles on the subject…
In 1821 the poet Shelley claimed that poets were – are – ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ I would not for a moment dispute that, but would add others to the list of unsung heroes, essential to our cultural wellbeing but toiling in obscurity and anonymity. Lexicographers, despite Dr Johnson‘s dismissal of us as ‘harmless drudges’, translators, interpreters, editors all deserve the gratitude of everyone who reads, perhaps even deserve a metaphorical moment in the sun.
I was given another chance to venture into the late summer sunshine by translation specialist and editor Isabella Massardo who asked me about life as a drudge and about other topical issues...
I was also interviewed by Marie Billon, UK correspondent for RTL and RFI, about the latest British ‘portmanteau’ acronyms and jargon, now attempting to describe the co-occurrence of the pandemic and the final stages of the Brexit process (my contribution, partly in rusty French, is at 14 minutes in)…
There are other hitherto little-known or unknown linguists – teachers, students, language enthusiasts among them – who also deserve our attention. One such, Sameer Merali, interviewed another such – Zobia, a real life user of youth slang – and me for his SLANGuage podcast series…
In October I took part in a debate on current language issues, hosted by Cumberland House. The discussion ranged across the language of ethnicity, diversity and inclusion, the language of youth and the notion of ‘political correctness’ and the policing of comedy and creativity…
To return to the poor lexicographer’s standing, or lack of it, an eminent practitioner of the craft, Jeremy Butterfield, sent this resonant quote on the subject…
“Dictionary-making, while it obviously demands high scholarly qualifications, is commonly regarded as the graveyard of academic careers, and it is precisely those who have what it takes to whom we would be most loath to commend such an undertaking.” – Prof. W. Atkinson (1902-1992), Glasgow University 1961
One of the remarkable things about language is that it’s so central to our being that most people are wholly and completely unreflective about it. The racist elements in our cultural history are coming under increased scrutiny, among them the racist roots of some everyday language.
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)…
I passed the author of those words in the street the other day. Babyboomer Pete Townshend (of the Who rock group, for younger readers) was looking characteristically mournful. I, only a few years younger than Pete, am feeling characteristically feisty as I mount a one-man fightback against the latest slurs directed at us both. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the current dismissive catchphrase ‘OK Boomer’, imported from the USA along with a barrage of boomer-baiting in social media and in the press*. I fully understand that this is in part a fully understandable backlash by younger people against the relentless criticism and condescension directed at them by their elders for years – vitriolic in the USA, slightly more measured in the UK, where the focus has been more narrowly concentrated on trying to market to ‘youth’, whoever they may be.**
We boomers have to own the appalling voting record of many of our number, and we have to overcome our passive-aggressive bumptiousness. US humorist P J O’Rourke pioneered the uneasy self-deprecation that for a long time characterised our embarrassment about characterisation: ‘Once the Baby Boom had gone through all of its rudimentary phases of ideological development, from revolutionary pimples to Reaganite hip replacement, the true politics of our generation would be revealed. In America the reasonably well-off and moderately comfortable are the angry masses. It has to do with borrowing Mom’s car.’
Our age demographic has nonetheless been unfairly maligned for far too long. It’s time now to forget the clichés and facile recriminations, move beyond intergenerational strife based on slogans and soundbites and to revisit some of the beliefs that we held to, and the ideas that we explored. I’ll be looking at how this might be achieved in my next post.
I have never really been comfortable with the labels adopted for categorising generations, age-groups and consumer cohorts. But I’ve been guilty of promoting them myself. I only heard today of the sub-division of the babyboom demographic, known in the US as ‘Generation Jones‘***, but back in 2014 I described another, then newly discovered tribe, one that emerged from the consumerist jungle before slipping back into obscurity…
‘Trend forecasters The Future Laboratory have promoted the term superboomers to define a new wave of consumers, key players in lifestyle markets. Now forming 24% of the UK population, rising to 33% by 2030, controlling 75% of the nation’s wealth, (with another £3 billion coming soon from pension cash-ins) the over-55 demographic is rebooting, redefining former notions of aging and retirement. Their enthusiasm for digital media, starting up new businesses (as encore entrepreneurs in the jargon), fitness and self-improvement – and later-life dating, too – sets them apart from the pre-babyboomer generations. Enriched by runaway house prices they are juggling their property portfolios in ways that agents struggle to keep up with. In fact, the message for the entire commercial sector is catch on and catch up, since, according to a 2014 survey by High50.com, only 11% of superboomers think brands are interested in them, while 95% are certain that advertising is ignoring them altogether.’
I had been one of the first to record the arrival, belatedly in the UK, of the millennial label. In 2007 I tried to define this new phenomenon for the readers of Business Life magazine…
‘Millennials are the latest generation of young professionals. We’ve witnessed the rise of babyboomers and yuppies, then of the former slackers known as Generation X. This newest generational label (alternatively Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) refers to youngsters born between 1981 and 1999 and their coming of age has spawned a slew of articles in both specialist journals and popular media. Commentators are detailing how they differ from predecessors in their collective attitudes and describing how to manage them in the workplace. What is provable is that millennials are the most ethnically diverse, as well as the most digitally aware and empowered group yet to emerge. On their other characteristics, though, opinions differ sharply. In the UK some employers have castigated them as work-shy, semi-literate, needy and narcissistic while US behavioural ‘experts’ laud the millennials’ ability to multitask, their skill in balancing work and leisure as well as their supposed respect for elders and leaders, trust in institutions and allegiance to teams.’
By December 2015 the MTV channel was declaring that Millennial, the term, and Millennials themselves were out of date. It had some novel proposals for the naming of the coming generation…
‘For those millennials looking forward to the day the baby boomers finally give up the ghost and hand over the keys to the world, MTV has some bad news. Millennials, with their social media narcissism and difficulty getting on to the career ladder, are yesterday’s news. The future, it seems, belongs to the next generation, one MTV has hereby decreed shall be dubbed The Founders, a name that, despite being a real word, is somehow very creepy, like the title of a supposed self-actualization men’s group your father would join in an attempt to get over your mother leaving, who before long would mysteriously have power of attorney over him. We can do better than that. Here are 10 better titles for the demographic cohort of tomorrow.
According to experts – and by experts, I mean marketing executives assuming expertise based on a desperate need to feel sure about anything in a rapidly evolving culture – post-millennials are driven to rebuild and redefine a society built around broken or corrupt systems of governance, hence (sort of) the name Founders. Unfortunately, these kids have also been plugged into social media since the moment they were born, which means for many of them effecting real and lasting change means posting their complaints in capital letters and retweeting with wild abandon.
MTV Presents: The Currently Desirable Demographic
This nickname doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it does get right to the point – namely, that giving each generation a handle is increasingly a cynical attempt to corral young people with disposable income into a singular, easily defined mass for marketing purposes, and in the case of MTV taking it upon themselves to name this crowd also a sad swing at retaining some fading cultural currency. Maybe we’ll shorten it to The MTVCDD?
Let’s admit that within 10 years the chief connotation of the word “viral” will have nothing to do with biology and will primarily stand for what is steadily becoming the pinnacle of human achievement and state of being that is every post-millennial’s greatest desire.
Adele sold almost 4m albums in the last few weeks, so it might be nice to name the next generation in her honor to mark what might be the last occasion that so many people agreed on anything.
This name depends on whether literally any one of the current Republican presidential candidates manage to pull out a win next November and become what will surely be the last leader of the free world.
And this one depends on how the climate change conference currently under way in Paris turns out.
This one depends on whether Apple ever works out the kinks in those crummy wristwatches and moves on to what I suspect must be the next stage in their ultimate plan for us all.
The Duck and Cover Kids
Unless someone with political power ever gets it together and does something about the ease with which a deluded maniac can buy a gun and transition into a domestic terrorist.
For those not in the know, a “Netflix and chill” session means getting together to enjoy some streaming content prior to fornication. Many post-millennials may well be part of the first generation spawned through such a practice.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an old sailor is forced to bear the burden of an albatross he killed at sea by wearing it around his neck. As the Baby Boomers continue to die off, leaving irreversible environmental damage, systematic racism, endless war in the Middle East, and various financial disasters in their wake, post-millennials might want to adopt the slogan that every one of their grandparents deserves to have carved into their tombstone – Hold My Albatross – as a rallying cry. This one is unlikely, but you Baby Boomers … was embracing the Eagles and the Grateful Dead not enough? You couldn’t just ruin music, you had to take the whole world down, too?’
Like superboomers and many others, whether frivolous and facetious, or coined with deadly serious intent (I’ll be listing some in my next post), these labels instantly and ignominiously faded from the radar.
*The OKBoomer media storm is summarised in an article from November 2019. What interests me especially is how, when zoomers, millennials, centennials and generation z rounded upon the hapless boomers, the cohort which is still dominant – generation x -once again escaped censure…
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.’
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.
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…
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.
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.’
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:
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.
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.
*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’
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 flâneurto 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Twitteracquaintances have already, to donate your own examples, for which I will thank and credit you, as long as you don’t mean them personally…
*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.’