The poet Hugo Williams, in an entertaining ramble around changes in language in the TLS the other day, noted that curate’s egg is now widely used to mean ‘a mixed blessing’, which is far from the intention of its originator, the cartoonist George Du Maurier (Punch, 9 November 1895).
Du Maurier, that grand old bohemian, was 61, and dead within a year. I think the joke is still funny, and so is one from seven years earlier, of the couple on a park bench, next to an old gent reading his paper: Edwin (suddenly, after a long pause): ‘Darling!’ Angelina: ‘Yes, darling!?’ Edwin: ‘Nothing, darling. Only darling, darling!’ [Bilious Old Gentleman feels quite sick.]
But now I come to think of it, to use curate’s egg otherwise than as ‘mixed blessing’ would be hard. Indeed the Oxford English Dictionary defined it as ‘a type of something of mixed character (good and bad)’, quoting the Minister’s Gazette of Fashion, 1905: ‘The past spring and summer season has seen much fluctuation. Like the curate’s egg, it has been excellent in parts.’
Another modern tendency Hugo Williams lighted upon is the assumption that new words are mostly derived from acronyms. One true acronym he mentioned, twoc, comes from ‘taking without consent’. This he calls a ‘coy’ word for ‘steal’. Really it is a separate crime, of driving away a ‘conveyance’ under the Theft Act 1968, section 12.
But he’s right about the acronymic assumption, and gives a folk-etymology for chav as ‘council house and violent’. I’d heard ‘cheap and vulgar’ and ‘Cheltenham average’. But as Mr Williams notes, it certainly derives from the Romany for ‘boy’. He, with Michael Quinion, the online etymologist, cites the Romany word as chavi. John Sampson’s Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales (Oxford, 1929), as I noted here in 2002, lists it under cavo (where the ‘c’ would be pronounced as ‘ch’.
The Spanish form, which Mr Williams cites as cheval, is more usually chaval and, according to the big dictionary by Corominas, this comes from cavale, the vocative masculine plural of cavo. In Catalonia they write it xaval, and in Barcelona use the form xava. In Chile, they say chey. In some Spanish gipsy dialects, the feminine is chavi. None of these have the connotations of our chav, and mean instead ‘lad’, ‘lass’, ‘prostitute’, according to context.
The vogue identity of British chavdom has changed in the past five years, and in a century’s time, readers will be hard put to get the force of each example from our days precisely right.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 30, 2007