What Happens When Words Disappear? Part Two

There are some similar terms for human types that I did not cover in my riff on the archaic “Jelly-Bean”. This personage and his synonym the Fop might have lived within their means, even given their enormous clothes-budget. If they did not do so, however, they were Wastrels. In theory this term could have been used by conservatives when explaining why the poor ought not to be helped, but I don’t think it ever was. They had “workshy” and “layabouts” for that kind of job. No, the Wastrel was an upper-class person who blew his income or inheritance at the gambling-tables, or on the horses, or on women. (Funnily enough, I do not think that a woman who blew her own or her husband’s money on roulette or horses or dancing-partners was ever termed a Wastrel; we shall return to specific terms of disapprobation for women in later essays.) To be a Wastrel you had to have something to waste; living from hand to mouth in a garret did not qualify. Now, do we use this term for the modern sons of millionaires who spend their money on hideous bling until they are obliged to throw themselves on the mercy of the Italian or Russian mafias? And even then do not stop, since Wastrels are very hard to reform. I do not think we do. So if the word has vanished, what do we call them (other than Mr. President)? Is there in fact an extant term of the same compactness?

The Wastrel, of course, wants to be a Toff – another near-synonym of Fop, except that the now obsolete Toff was more about class and income. A Toff was not absolutely obliged to think of nothing but clothes, just as a Jelly-Bean might not really have the money on which to support his sartorial excellence. Since Toffs were thus named from much lower down the social scale upwards, the non-toffs probably did not make such fine decisions. They would have noticed only that shabbily dressed Toffs were extremely rare (though there are stories of eccentric aristocrats who dressed like tramps because everyone knew who they were anyway, dear chap).

Even more obsolete than Toff is Swell, which some online dictionaries only recognise in the sense of oceanic motion. One interesting aspect of this term is that it seems to be based on the same watery sense of expansion. It thus has a natural connection with “swelled head”, and whoever coined the term may or may not have intended this. One would like to think that the invention was made by some member of the lower orders – perhaps a mere “lout” – and not meant as a compliment. In that case it would be quite the question how “swell” came also to be the American for “excellent”. The answer is surely connected with that society’s veneration for wealth however viciously acquired, its complete break with the Judaeo-Christian (and Islamic and Buddhist) reservations about throwing your big-monkey weight about.

The word “brash” has not in fact vanished, and I am mentioning it here because online dictionaries cite Scottish or French origins to do with violent assault. For I would have guessed, apparently wrongly, that it was a member of the same family praising ungodly behaviour: related to “brass”, as in “brass face” – aggressively unashamed of one’s own vices. It is at any rate certain that the alloy has given us “brassy”, a word that used to be employed for females who were assertive in a way people used to find unpleasantly crude or in-your-face. We shall return to these specifically female epithets later, but it occurs to me that I have not heard “brassy” or “brass face” for a long time.

Back in the days of Fitzgerald where we came in, a man who treated women in a certain way would be called a “heel”. My principle of protecting a species by losing the word to describe them would certainly not apply here, in this age of #MeToo and its weaponisation of complaints about male behaviour going back to Adam. Not that the “heel” has necessarily done anything felonious, it is a matter of at best poor sexual manners and at worst predation within the law. The consequence appears, not to prevent us talking about heels, but to make sure that such condemnation is done only in the pseudo-sociological and millenarian language of the Woke, committing us to all sorts of things that merely calling a man a heel might not. It may also be noted what a marvellously compact word it is with its mere four letters. Come to think of it, “cad” means the same thing in only three letters.

Related to “heel” and equally vanished we might cite “Rake”. Short for “rakehell”, it properly embraces drunkenness and being a Wastrel, but tended to specialise in the sexually promiscuous male – that is, the swordsman, the wencher, and a lot of other words that are much less condemnatory than the terms used when the ladies retaliate in kind. The eighteenth-century Hellfire Club got up to things that would deeply shock us even today, as well as blasphemies that wouldn’t.

Do we talk about Rakes today? Not as such, and doing so would make you instantly unpopular as a moralist. What has happened is that the components of Rakehood have been isolated and medicalised. The drunkard is an alcoholic who suffers from a disease, the gambler suffers from a compulsion that is again not his fault, while the cocksman is nowadays a sex addict. Note the decreasing sympathy shown to these three conditions. Once again, any description or condemnation of what used to be called the Rake is likely to be both pseudo-scientific and very long-winded; and once again, the substitution of complicated for simple language serves only the interest of those needing to raise a great dust.

I have commented elsewhere on the medical camouflage of what are simply bad habits. There is no doubt a real neurological fault that causes ADHD, but the disappearance of the old word “Scatterbrained” is nevertheless cause for concern. If we ask how many genuine sufferers from ADHD were previously dismissed as scatterbrained, we can equally well ask how many scatterbrained people are now hiding behind the label of ADHD. These will not be people who have received the diagnosis after testing and MRI scanning, but rather people who give it to themselves, in everyday conversation, whenever other people complain that they do not pay attention. For not-listening is not a medical issue but a deeply ethical one, an aspect of lack of respect for others. And no longer having a condemnatory word for this behaviour cannot but cause it to increase by leaps and bounds. People will then wonder why the neurological condition is growing so rapidly; they will look at environmental toxins and who knows, they might eventually find them. It took a while before we realised what leaded petrol was doing to us. But I cannot imagine a mechanism whereby medical camouflage for lack of respect will ever be unmasked. This is simply a ratchet.

Another word that has disappeared is “Malingering”, which used to mean the use of invented ill-health to get out of work or other duties. This is a welcome development in that it was often employed to condemn people who thus evaded work or duties because they were not being properly remunerated. Our masters naturally want us all to toil for them, free gratis and for nothing. And yet abusus non tollit usum, and the sheer inability to say that Smith is faking something in order to remain in sweet idleness cannot possibly do us any good. Both phenomena exist, both enslavement/oppression and malingering, and both need to be named when appropriate.

Posted on December 7, 2021 at 14:52 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

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