‘I know the antidote to toxicity,’ my husband shouted, waving a copy of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, even though there was nobody to shout down.
Toxicity has become a fashionable word, particularly since the resignation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Toxic is to poisonous what erotic is to sexual: an elevated term. Over the past fortnight it has been deployed in that storm in a television set: the fall of Phillip Schofield.
Someone called Dr Ranj Singh declared that the culture at This Morning – the ITV programme that is generally on when one is waiting at an airport – had ‘become toxic’.
Schofield, a presenter of the show for 21 years, said before he resigned: ‘Some people may be toxic and see toxicity everywhere because that’s the lens they are looking at the world.’ ‘My friend, the toxicity is not about me or anyone else,’ responded Eamonn Holmes, another television presenter, ‘the toxicity is with you.’
According to tabloid newspapers, tension between the two increased when Schofield published a memoir, Life’s What You Make It, in 2020, which repeatedly spelt Eamonn Holmes’s first name with only one n. I’d have thought that with two ls in Phillip he’d have seen the danger.
Toxic came into English in the 1660, but toxin only in the 1890s. Toxic derived from toxicum, the Latin form of the Greek toxikon ‘pertaining to a bow’, which Pliny explained from the bow-strings used to collect dew-like poison. In reality toxikon was short for toxikon pharmakon, ‘arrow poison’. But the element pharmakon, originally meaning ‘poison’, was dropped, with the archery element toxikon, left to signify poison on its own. (Toxophily, love of archery, was suggested by Elizabeth I’s Greek tutor Roger Ascham, though the regular Greek formation would have been philotoxy.