Inappropriate language

Mr Slang explains why finds one particular word to be the most offensive in the English language…

Occasionally, when I toss some new offering onto the great heap of the unsold that is publishing (for if every birth is a death postponed, so are mint and shiny first editions merely the sad and dusty mounds of the remainder shops in waiting), I am interviewed. Once this was achieved by lengthy rail treks to some broadcasting outpost in a provincial city or, when favoured by the budget, tours in a hired car; now, and for many years, it is ‘down the line’ via a small BBC studio in B.H. or even on the phone or more recently the podcast.

The nature of these interviews is irrelevant but they tend to offer a unifying factor: ‘What,’ asks the young person (for they are all young these days) ‘is your favourite slang word?’ Determinedly, consistently, some might suggest priggishly, and undoubtedly cussedly, I refuse to answer this question. There was a time when I threw them Nebuchadnezzar, a little-known Victorian synonym for the penis, based on one of those elaborate period puns, surely not invented in the street but sniggered into existence in some don’s cloistered lair, that plays on the Babylonian’s fondness for grass, which is green and the contemporary slang use of greens to mean sexual intercourse. This palled. At least it did for me. So I prefer to warn the producer that there are some levels of self-abasement to which even I will not stoop, and could they kindly strike the offending question from their clipboard.

What never happens, but that for which I yearn, is that they ask me which might be the words that, far from applauding, I would have stricken from public speech. I have a list. None of them are slang, every one to me is vile. Let me name them: they are all adjectival. Wholesome. Earnest. Family. Each betokens the imminence of the mediocre, the vapid, the anodyne, the sickly and the sentimental. My distaste is long-lived. Once there fell into my relatively infant hands an annual entitled The Chatterbox. This proclaimed itself as wholesome. (It had been founded and then edited by evangelicals). It also suggested that those who read too much, which was de facto unwholesome, turned into book worms. Literally. It provided an illustration. Worms whose segments were books and whose face was that of a tortured child. It was the only book I have ever attempted to burn. With lighter fluid, behind our defunct air-raid shelter. Damp in every sense, and perhaps appalled at my playing with matches, it failed to ignite. Frustrated in what I knew to be the ultimate sanction, I simply binned it.

Recently I have added a fourth word to my anti-canon. It  is old, 16th century in the sense that underpins that which I deplore, 14th in its origins, and does have perfectly respectable uses. But not this one. If ever there were so weaselly a word, I have yet to encounter it. (Brief digression: the weasel, Putorius nivalis, is known, as stated in the OED, ‘for its slender body, and for its ferocity and bloodthirstiness’; no suggestion of duplicity. Teddy Roosevelt seems to have coined the image in 1912; the weasel word comes on stream in 1959). The word I question is appropriate. And, for that matter, inappropriate, the form in which it most often appears.

Appropriate comes from the older appropre or approprie which borrow directly from old French and before that from Latin adpropriāre in which means literally ‘to render one’s own’. The modern form is use by the 1600s. It was originally used of ‘assigning or setting apart for a specific purpose’; the verbal use, ‘to take for oneself’, dates from 1535  and the first example of the adjectival sense ‘specially fitted or suitable, proper’ comes in 1546. For this there are pleasing synonyms: queem (an adjunct of comely), limply (from Old English limpan strong), tideful (from tide, a suitable time or occasion and seemingly linked to time itself), avenant  (from French avenir, to arrive, to suit, befit) and mack  (from sundry Scandinavian terms for calm, placid or agreeable). None survived much beyond the 15th century.

I am not sure when appropriate assumed its tail and whiskers. In the last decade? Dictionaries, however well-cited, are bad at gifting definitions with nuance. The essence of modern appropriate, used as I say more often as a negative, is censorship. Or, since this is the UK, nannying. A politically correct way round outright and honest condemnation. ‘It’s not that I want to…, but I must….’, ‘this will hurt me more than it hurts you’: the hypocrite’s eternal excuse. Because this cowardly catch-all is, though most likely unconsciously, a direct return to the origins of the term: ‘making one’s own.’ That which is not appropriate cannot and must not be made one’s own. It breaks the Golden Rule. It is shameful, embarrassing, disgusting (which literally means ‘that which I cannot bear to taste’). It must be side-stepped, hidden, best of all forbidden. Because, to echo the censor’s immutable cry, if I cannot tolerate it, then you shall not.

I experienced it first-hand in 2005 when a school-board in N. Carolina desired to ban my slang dictionary from its classrooms: its language was not appropriate. Really?  all 87,500 headwords?  No matter; it was piffling stuff and I was amused. (In 1971 I had played a walk-on role in the Oz trial: this was not a reprise). The Guardian (alerted by me) ran a short piece. In any case did I really want the infant descendents of those who once rejoiced in the name clay-eaters (the nickname of North Carolinians; it is a wholly descriptive, factual term; it has an alternative: tarheel) to ponder my finely-honed filth.

Lexicography is the great open door. Nothing within is ‘inappropriate’ and I make every word my own. ‘They’re all my babies,’ I tell the producer demanding a favourite, ‘how could I possibly make a choice?’

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
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About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

8 thoughts on “Inappropriate language

  1. Worm
    September 29, 2011 at 14:01

    top drawer stuff Mr Slang!

    also when using ‘appropriate’ you need to include it with suffix ‘in this day and age’

    September 29, 2011 at 17:42

    I also think “diverse” is edging onto the list that must be banned, at least in its 21st century US academic/political context which refers to a diversity of ethnic origin/sexual orientation etc combined with a stifling uniformity of thought.

    September 29, 2011 at 19:03

    Fallen into disuse now and thank goodness, it was often used dismissively……’immaterial’.

    Perhaps, Jonathon the forthcoming BBC budget trim will involve a cull of it’s cubs. No poo bahs will be ejected, ain’t that the truth.

    September 29, 2011 at 19:22


    September 29, 2011 at 20:06

    Thanks for bringing words to life and adding colour to copy… Your passion for flowery phraseology is refreshing and fun, Jonathon. As is your (curiously appropriate) distate for mediocrity and politcal correctness.

  6. Gaw
    September 29, 2011 at 21:27

    Wasn’t ‘inappropriate’ popularized and therefore made notorious by Bill Clinton in his euphemistic ‘fessing up?

    I suppose there might be a legitimate ironical use. Murder being an inappropriate response to someone spilling your pint.

      September 29, 2011 at 23:58

      Unless you happen to be Glaswegian.

    September 29, 2011 at 22:32


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