Words for good politicians are hard to find in the dictionary – Susie Dent


The House of Commons: When it was discovered that former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson had violated lobbying rules and rules of conduct for MPs, the term “sleaze” was a linguistic slam-dunk à la both for the opposition and the media, writes Susie Dent.

The sound of sleaze fits his definition perfectly – it’s smooth, rippling, and suggestively seedy. He’s also climbing the language charts, oozing politics again. With him comes an accompanying lexicon of obscenity which confirms that he never really disappeared.

“Sleaze” has turned out to be a remarkably elastic term. It lends itself just as well to illicit business or a vice of any kind as it does to financial scandals and expenditure scandals. It encompasses work and nepotism, cronyism and simple lies. When Owen Paterson was convicted of breaking the lobbying rules and the rules of conduct for MPs, the term was a linguistic slam-dunk to both the opposition and the media.

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Sleaze’s own story isn’t that simple: In its early days, the word was much more about fragility than dirt. It started as a spinoff from “sleazy”, which was first recorded in the 1640s in the writings of Sir Kenelm Digby, philosopher and courtier of Charles I. Digby uses “sleazy” to describe the distillation of certain spirits, which “are in themselves as hairy or silty, that is to say they have small downy parts, as we see on the feet of flies.”

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The paws of the insects may seem easily reminiscent of the limbs stretched out on the benches by some members of the House of Commons, but the emphasis here is on vagueness and, by extension, things without substance. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the implications of sordidity crept in.

The etymology of sleaze is also perfectly slippery. A popular suggestion is that it starts with “Sleazy Cloth,” in which “sleazy” was slang for Silesia, a region now in southwestern Poland that was once famous for the production of fine textiles. “Silesia” itself has become a generic term for high quality, and so “sordid” fabric was originally anything but sordid. Like some members of Parliament, its reputation was not to last, and it was knock-offs at a reduced price that ultimately did.

Sleazy eventually got hooked on cheap knockoffs of the real thing: sordid in every way.

A similar word in the Sleaze lexicon, whose frequency in linguistic graphics is increasingly rapid, is “tawdry”. It also formerly referred to the fabric, this time commemorating Ely’s patroness, Ethelreda, known as Saint Audrey. The stalls sold fine lace necklaces and ribbons known as “St Audrey’s lace” – “tacky lace” when pronounced quickly. As the quality of the fair’s adornments declined, the “tawdry” remained on the cheap and low-quality side of life.

In the 14th century, those who exhibited fraudulent behavior in public life would have been called “corrumpent”, from the Latin cor, “together”, and rumpere, “to break, violate or destroy”. They are the breakers of the laws that they themselves helped to put in place, rendering them unnecessary. Corrupting was to spread corruption or, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “to putrid”; it was eventually replaced by “corrupt”, whose first meaning was also “to rot”, like spoiled fruit. A powerful word, it also applied to anyone so debased in character that they were believed to have been infected with evil.

The dictionary also gives us a specific term for corruption in the job, office or position of trust. It is the 16th century “embezzlement”, from the Latin maleversari, “to act badly”. There are many examples of its use throughout history, such as in a letter from the Duke of Wellington in 1811 complaining that “this malfeasance in office, this neglect of duty … has gone unnoticed”. Not so unnoticed fifty years later, when John Richard Green notes in A short history of the English people that “Charges of embezzlement and corruption have been leveled against members of the House”.

Green was writing at a time, much like ours, when business and personal interests were seen as a distortion of government policy and policy, leading to strong waves of anti-corruption sentiment and new calls for legislation. The Reform Act of 1832 was intended to clear up the electoral system, but even in its early days the London and Westminster Review lamented the fact that “already … the envious goddess of corruption has sent two deadliest serpents, corruption and intimidation, to strangle the baby-giant “. The serpent metaphor is also played invisibly in “extortion”, which comes from the Latin torquere, to twist or squeeze hard.

Corruption has been known by a variety of other names in the past, from boodlerism to palmistry and, of course, “blackmail,” which was originally a form of protection racketeering. 16th-century Scottish chiefs regularly demanded money from farmers and small landowners in the border counties of England and Scotland, in return for protection or immunity from plunder. “Mail” here comes from an old Scandinavian word mál, meaning “speech, agreement”, while “black” was a nasty riff on “white money”, the silver coins in which legitimate rents were paid. .

Lobbying, meanwhile, takes its name from the physical lobbies of the US and UK legislative assemblies where ministers meet to vote and where talks between members and non-members of the House take place. From this was born the involvement of paid advocacy and the search for favors by those with private or commercial interests.

It’s a collection of sordid words, perhaps matched only by the list of epithets for those in office who are themselves mired in sordid. Words like “snollygoster”: a politician for his own gain, or a “quockerwodger”: one whose strings are fully pulled by someone else. If only we had a comparable lexicon for those with integrity and honesty, who are unfairly involved in the midst of vulgarity. Words for good politicians are hard to find in the dictionary, suggesting that fairness has long been stifled by ambition.

But then “ambition” itself arose in politics, a nod to the Roman electoral hopes who would roam the city to display their credentials. Their gowns were always bright white, candidus in Latin, as an outward display of purity – we received the word “candidate” from them. It seems that the sordid web of politics has come undone from the start.

-Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in Dictionary Corner on Countdown since 1992. Her book, Word Perfect: Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year, is now available.

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