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Mind your language

Word of the year: shouty

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

15 December 2018

9:00 AM

‘Remind me what incel means again,’ said my husband. There was no point, since he’d forgotten twice already. I suspected a psychological barrier to learning. Incel (a label for people unhappy at being involuntarily celibate) was a runner-up for Oxford dictionaries’ word of the year, won by toxic.

But to me the word that captures the flavour of Britain this year is shouty. It identifies a trait that people dislike yet are given to. It belongs to an informal register (like not wearing a tie). Protesters are literally shouty, and metaphorically so are capital letters, some films and even aromatic food. There was sympathy, I read in the Guardian, for Theresa May being ‘surrounded by shouty men’.

Shouty belongs to a group of words expanding in number in the 19th century, such as beery or catty. They were formed freely to express ridicule or contempt.

Shouty is found earliest in a satirical poem by Leigh Hunt (not published till 1860) on the coronation of George IV: ‘How I feel betwixt ye! / Curlies, burlies, / Dukes and earlies, / Bangs and clangs of band O! / Shouty, flouty, heavy rig, and gouty, / When shall I come to a stand O!’ Leigh Hunt here uses words of various kinds ending in y. Curly had been used of hair since the late 18th century. Burly belongs to a quite different class of words ending in ly (corresponding to the German suffix lich), such as scholarly or cowardly.

Burly had meant ‘stately’ in the Middle Ages, but also ‘stout’, the meaning that endured. When he comes to earlies, Leigh Hunt is using early as a pet-form of earl.


Such pet-forms ending in y or ie were originally used for names, such as Sandy from Alexander or Bessy from Elizabeth.

The first common noun given this hypocoristic suffix was laddie, in the 16th century. Granny came a century later. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that diminutives such as doggy and froggy became frequent. Piggy-wiggy represented a further nursery development. But the Oxford English Dictionary does not record doggy-woggy, and it only gives booky-wook when quoting the title of Russell Brand’s memoir (2007), which it erroneously dates from 1997.

All these connotations of the suffix y are carried implicitly in our minds ready for use, but not consciously systematised. We tolerate much untidiness in language.

There’s a little verse composed of y words of the same kind as shouty (signifying ‘having the qualities of’). ‘The Twelve Months’ is often taken for a nursery rhyme: ‘Snowy, Flowy, Blowy, / Showery, Flowery, Bowery, / Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy, / Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.’ It was written by George Ellis (1753–1815). He did serious work on medieval literature, but made his name in 1778 with Poetical Tales under the pen-name Sir Gregory Gander. I looked out a copy of that little book, but ‘The Twelve Months’ was not in it. In 1783 Horace Walpole remarked that Ellis was ‘a favourite’ at Versailles. So it is tempting to think that his Snowy, Flowy, Blowy jeu d’esprit inspired the French Revolutionary calendar. In 1812, John Brady in his Clavis Calendaria avers that the French months were mocked in the following verses (beginning with autumn): ‘Wheezy, sneezy, freezy, / Slippy, drippy, nippy, / Showery, flowery bowery / Hoppy, Croppy, Poppy.’ This may well have been collected orally; the choice of adjectives is not as good as Ellis’s.

Anyway, the French were lucky to retain their 12 months, since a decimal clock had been imposed, with ten hours a day, each of 100 minutes with 100 seconds. Their new calendar started at the autumn equinox (Year II beginning on 22 September 1793), with the months:

Vendémiaire, Brumaire, Frimaire, Nivôse, Pluviôse, Ventôse, Germinal, Floréal, Prairial, Messidor, Thermidor, Fructidor.

The credit for naming these months went to Philippe François Nazaire Fabre d’Églantine, playwright, poet and revolutionary. He added the d’Églantine to his name himself. He voted for the king to be killed and was guillotined in turn on 5 April 1794 – 16 Germinal, Year II.

The English for Nivôse was Snowy only because, before the Conquest, snáwig replaced snáwlic.Otherwise we’d expect a snowly January. Snow might still seem Christmassy, but Christmassy was invented in the 1880s. As for merry, it belongs to none of the y kinds of adjective, but comes from the same ancient source as mirth, with the root meaning ‘short’ — the idea being times that seem short are pleasant. So a shorty not a shouty Christmas to you.


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