Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 15 January 2005

A Lexicographer writes

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It might seem a little early to say so, but if there’s one word this year can do without, it is edgy. It has become a cliché and people seem to use it without any discernible meaning. Both characteristics no doubt go together.

I was brought up to take edgy as meaning ‘irritable, on edge, nervous’. Those are the latest of the established meanings, it having escaped the attention of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, though the supplements later supplied a sample from the 1830s.

A sense in which I have never used edgy is ‘having the outlines too hard’, with reference to a painting. ‘There were two Holbeins, flat, shadowless, edgy compositions.’ That is neither mysterious nor laudatory, but the sense could, I suppose, somehow be nudged into something praiseworthy, as not being soft.

The obvious sense of edgy is ‘having an edge, sharp, cutting’. The word edge itself has an ambiguous value, as in Browning’s ‘the dangerous edge of things’. A cliff is a dangerous edge, but so is a razor.

A dialectal meaning, notably in Scotland, has been ‘keen’, itself an alternative metaphor. Hamlet plays with the meanings when in reply to Ophelia’s ‘You are keen, my Lord,’ he replies, ‘It’ll cost you a groaning to take off my edge.’ I do not think the Prince’s specific sexual reference, also present in the use of ‘edged tools’ in the lewd mediaeval song ‘Watkyn’s Ale’, figures in edgy’s modern usage.

So which meaning is present in the tiresome universal term of critical approbation? The comedy Little Britain is often said to be edgy. ‘Edgy, off-beat,’ the Independent called it. Does it mean any more than the ubiquitous innovative? One of its stars, David Walliams, says, ‘It is a bit edgy at times but I think people realise we are trying to be funny and not offensive.’

The quality also applies to the group Mercury Rev, according to the Observer: ‘They’re lush, yet edgy, a mood usually provided by Grasshopper’s swooping dynamic range.’ Grasshopper is a guitarist. Talking of which, U2’s The Edge is said to be so called both from his sharpness and his looking on at things from the edge.

Even shoes can be edgy. ‘The brand was edgy and slightly aggressive,’ says the Independent on Sunday of Doc Martens. The Scotsman’s advice is: ‘Keep it edgy and individual with a pair of eye-catching shoes. (Dries Van Noten crystal-heel leather shoes, £270).’

I think the modish usage combines ‘irritable’ and ‘on the edge’. It sets my teeth on edge.