Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 16 August 2003

A Lexicographer writes

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It is by no means clear to me which words are acceptable in what social circumstances. I mean words from bloody southward. It was, 20 years ago, the case that in the grown-up surroundings of The Spectator it was all right to use for good reason strong language that the BBC could not abide. Now, on the stroke of 9 p.m., television makes fuck the most common of lexical choices. My husband doesn't give a damn, but is shocked on my behalf.

It doesn't have to be 9 p.m. Shortly after 10 the other morning a rather sincere young person on Woman's Hour was advocating our women's standing up to verbal harassment by telling off the perpetrators. 'It isn't just "Show us your tits",' said the young person. No, indeed, though wasn't she practising what she reprehended by blasting thus our children's school-holiday ears?

On the genuinely amusing Absolutely Fabulous, Patsy referred to Saffy as a bit of flap-snot. Now that really is obscene, but I suppose few twigged, and those who did could look after themselves.

Then on the inventive if slightly miserable new cartoon Monkey Dust there is the usual allowance of fucks, but a running joke was the characterisation of some boring trendies as wankers. This word seems more acceptable than fuck. It is not meant literally, but is moving into broadcasting territory where less shocking substitutes had been used: prat, tosser and even twat.

Twat is often now pronounced to rhyme with cat, which is wrong historically. Literally, of course, it means the same as the one word which I hesitate to use among you mature-minded readers. The same word etymologically is far more acceptable in French (the grammatical gender, following the Latin cunnus, being masculine).

I read in the Daily Telegraph that the successful comedy D–ner de Cons is being remade by Steven Spielberg under the title Dinner for Schmucks. To translate cons with the false friend of its nearest etymological cousin would be a mistake, even semantically, but it is a little disappointing to find that English cinema-goers are expected to be quite happy with an American term. I know that the word is Yiddish, but it has become naturalised in America with far more penetration, as it were, than in Britain. The derivation is from German Schmuck, 'ornament', but the denotation is the membrum virile. Perhaps there is no English equivalent of con in this sense; dickhead is too exclusively a term of intellectual abuse. Wankers for Dinner might be more accurate, if not box-office.