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Mind your language

‘Shame’ is no longer one’s greatest fear, it’s offence culture’s default response

6 April 2019

9:00 AM

6 April 2019

9:00 AM

In 1663, just before Samuel Pepys visited the stables of the elegant Thomas Povey, where he found the walls were covered with Dutch tiles, like his own fireplaces, he was worrying about Navy pay. People who were owed money by the Navy had to apply for it at a goldsmith’s shop, where they would have to forgo 15 or 20 per cent to secure it. Pepys called this ‘a most horrid shame’.

Pepys also used the phrase horrid shame about a case of mistreatment of a watchman by the Lord Chief Justice, and of the King climbing over the garden wall of Somerset House to visit the Duchess of Richmond.


It was what we might call a scandal. As for Pepys’s use of ‘horrid’, it was slangy at the time, the word having declined from a conscious connection with the Latin horridus, ‘bristling’. Yet it sometimes retained force, as in his well-known description of the Fire of London’s ‘most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the fine flame of an ordinary fire’.

Although Pepys often exclaims ‘God forgive me’ when mentioning his own bad behaviour, usually to do with sex, he fears public shame more. Shame in his vocabulary had not reached the everyday level of Gus Elen’s music-hall song in which a ‘great big shame’ is equivalent to ‘a pity that the likes of ’er should put upon the likes of ’im’.

But today it is fashionable to shout ‘Shame on you!’ at politicians or chant it at demos. The Daily Star, in a thoughtful leader, declared ‘Shame on you, Robbie,’ when the singer Robbie Williams gave bad advice about drugs. Anna Soubry cried out ‘Shame on you!’ at Keir Starmer in the Commons. The brief phrase condemns an opponent without the need to explain his or her shame.

At the same time it has become shameful to fat shame fat people. The theory is that calling people fat makes them eat even more. In that case, perhaps my husband has been drink shamed. The next step might be to ‘call out’ those who shame fat-shamers. In the culture of taking offence, shaming is the default response, and there’s always a search for higher ground from which to do the shaming.


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