Voice from the Commonwealth
Commentary, World Views and Occasional Rants from a small 'l' libertarian in Massachussetts

"If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest for freedom, go home and leave us in peace. We seek not your council nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen." - Samuel Adams

Friday, September 06, 2002


Neither “to stiff” nor “to crawfish” is a familiar metaphor in Britain. Both are vivid, as any boy who has fished for crawfish (or crayfish) in the chalk streams of England knows. The little critturs are brilliant at backing out of the kettle-on-a-string baited with rotting meat saved from school lunch. “To stiff” has several meanings in British English, either murderous or sexual. George’s application of it, meaning to cheat, will exercise the translators at the General Assembly. It should produce some hilarious malapropisms, with delegates shaking their écouteurs in disbelief.

Pedants will sneer at George’s neologisms. They always have. Other times of unprecedentedly rapid lexical innovation provoked outrage from the Mr Grumpies. They called them “inkhorn” terms. If the word had existed, they would have called them “cowboy” English. Dryden complained about “those who corrupt our English Idiom by mixing it with too much French”. Defoe called the inundation of slang “a Frenzy of the Tongue, a Vomit of the Brain”. By far the greatest sinner against the purity of English in their time was Shakespeare. Many of that great neologist’s creations have stuck: accommodation, assassination, barefaced, countless ... Others have fallen off the language tree: abruption, cadent, vastidity...

OK, say the pedants — or, in their case, “with the greatest respect”. It is one thing to accept neologisms from poets and other “creative” writers. C’est leur métier. But do we have to take vulgar new words from politicians? Especially from those whose command of English is as Brahma-bullish as Bush’s? Of course we must and do. Politicians and others in the public domain are prolific creators of new words and phrases. The Prime Minister has taught us the “Third Way”. Margaret Thatcher (through the impish medium of Julian Critchley) has given us “to handbag” as a verb. Chris Patten, a politician with a creative gift for language, popularised “porkies” and also the “double whammy”. The Chingford Skinhead will be recorded for having instructed us to “get on our bikes”. Politicians too neologise. C’est leur métier, aussi.

Too bad most American editorial writers are too blinded by their own predjudices to think before the damn Bush for words they don't happen to know. Personally, I find people who completely divorce themselves from where they grew up to be somewhat odious. Like they have something to be ashamed of and turn themselves into a bland cardboard representation of themselves.

So let it be with the President. “To stiff” (to cheat, or refuse to pay or tip) has been floating around in the US since 1950. The Washington Post, 1982 declared: “Instead of stiffing his servers, McCarthy should be stiffing their employers.” “To crawfish”, meaning to withdraw unreservedly from an untenable position, has been swimming backwards in US bayous for even longer. The Congressional Globe, 1848 observed that: “No sooner did they see the old British Lion rising up than they crawfished back to the 49th parallel.”

The President may not know it, or show it. But he is a linguistic archaeologist as well as a poet. His vivid metaphors are just the kind of colloquialisms that we Limeys expect to hear around the Texan barbecue or bar of our imaginations. They are lovely.

< email | 9/06/2002 07:28:00 AM | link

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