The most weaselly word in the English language

Mr Slang explains why he 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?’

Mr Slang is in the process of moving house this week, so this is a repeat which originally appeared last year under the title ‘Inappropriate language’.

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.
Share This Post

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.

7 thoughts on “The most weaselly word in the English language

    May 10, 2012 at 13:23

    give this man a R4 show!

    May 10, 2012 at 16:23

    Oh, dear God, don’t suggest that Worm – some Tristram may spot it and actually make him an offer. And where would that leave us, if he accepted such an offer? I’ll tell you – sans, sine, minus…. As Scruton says below, aside from wine, which is getting better, ‘everything worthwhile is in steep decline’, and this includes R4 and, even more so, R3. We don’t want JG cozying-up to that tat. Next thing he would be rubbing shoulders with Nicholas Parsons on Just A Minute and, probably before Christmas, the new Chairman of Have I Got News For You would be in place, telling the unwashed the real meaning of Nebuchadnezzar. No, let’s (try to) keep him here.

    John Halliwell
    May 10, 2012 at 18:31

    Make him Chairman of the Governors. On second thoughts – make him The Guv’nor! I can see him chairing a meeting: knuckle-dusters clinting, gold crowns gleaming, baseball bats threatening, and a cartridge for an absentee. Agenda:

    1) Dismantling Political Correctness
    2) Dismantling the Head of Political Correctness
    3) Magnums for Executives
    4) Magnums for Staff (Those incredible double-chocolate, vanilla, shot through with caramel models)
    5) Training – Slang for Executives (At the end of Module 1 Execs will be able to say with conviction: “Cor Blimey, would yer adam and eve it, just look at those bacons, they go all the way up to her arris, shame about the biscuits.” For those who fail to meet the required standard, output from Module 2 will be said through a split-lip)
    6) AOB (Any Old Bollocks. But it’d better be good!))

    Yes, I like this idea. With JG in charge I’d be prepared to buy a licence, instead of hiding in the broom cupboard every time a raspberry (jam – detector van) pulls up outside.

      May 10, 2012 at 18:46

      I take it that the magnums for the executives should be of the loaded colt 45 variety?

        John Halliwell
        May 10, 2012 at 19:02

        That’s the one, Worm. Unfortunately, the double-chocolate caramel model has got a hold on me; I drove four miles out of my way the other day with the sole aim of buying one . On arrival, I found the freezer had failed and all stock gone. What a waste of petrol….

    May 10, 2012 at 23:23

    Jonathon, when and not if you become supremo of the millstone around our necks will you kindly make the followimg the number one priority.

    Down the well with these apparachiks…Wark, Robinson, Vine, Marr, Edwards, that skinny burd, the whippersnapper Snow the ‘historian’ and recipient of the grand order of nepotism, the dopey blonde from Strictly, you may want to include the 24hr rolling news if there is room.

    For crimes against the viewer the following will have their smugness removed by liposuction…Dimbleby, that bloke who fronts the Beechgrove Garden and A.Tit (or Titch) marsh. Upon reflection Tit is more apposite, misc ‘comedians’ and we all know who they are.

    Borrow a helicopter, hover over the establishment scattering redundancy notices for 75% of the employees, I baulk at using the term ‘workers’, the generated savings can be re-invested in BBC4, the only department not attempting to brainwash the homophobic, racist, Thatcherite, public.

    If Harriet ‘regulation chattering class pudding basin hairdo’ Harman gives you any aggro then simply email me, I will send down a few of the lads, small businessmen that is, they do have issues.

    Boris will have you on his christmas list.

Comments are closed.