Jeremy Clarkson: Is the word 'fracas' just a middle-class way of describing a punch-up?

The word 'fracas' was trending on Twitter following Jeremy Clarkson's suspension. Gillian Orr investigates
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When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the early 18th-century lady of letters and wit, described in her journal a rakish young man of "royal blood" who was taking the fancy of a number of women, she wrote that he "occasions such fracas amongst the ladies of gallantry that it passes description". It was 1727 and the first time that the word "fracas" had been recorded anywhere in English.

The word was brought to prominence again this week after the BBC released a statement explaining that petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson had been suspended following what it called a "fracas" with a producer. While at first it was unclear what precisely went down, it later emerged that the Top Gear presenter had allegedly hit his colleague.

Online discussions about Clarkson's behaviour were promptly shelved in favour of ridiculing the Beeb's choice of word, with a number of people suggesting that no one actually used it, while others claimed they had never heard of it. The Daily Mirror even ran a quiz "What the flip is a fracas!?" Naturally the word was trending on Twitter all Tuesday afternoon.

One might imagine that Clarkson, endorser of good ol' fashioned masculinity, might not have taken kindly to news outlets describing his altercation with a word first introduced to the English language when describing the commotion caused by of a group of over-amorous women. But it is used correctly in both cases. Simply meaning a disturbance, noisy quarrel, row, or uproar, it comes from the French word of the same name, which is derived from the Italian fracasso.


But Kathryn Allan, senior lecturer in the history of English at UCL, suggests that the BBC might have deliberately chosen the word because it can be ambiguous. Had someone been hit; had someone not? That, it seems, is the beauty of "fracas". "It's a really interesting word because it doesn't specify physical violence although it's often implied and maybe that's why they picked that particular word," says Allan. "It's just a bit vague in a kind of useful way."

A quick online search shows that the use of the word fracas in books peaked in 1944 and has been falling steadily ever since. But Peter Gilliver, associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, claims that it is not quite as old fashioned as some parties might suggest. "It's not a word that everybody uses every day but as far as I can tell it's not dropped out of use particularly," says Gilliver, who suggests words such as rumpus, scrap, dust-up or barney would also have been suitable. Another reason that some gave for taking umbrage at the BBC's usage of the word was that they felt it was very middle-class; had the participants been working class then the media would probably have referred to it instead as a "punch-up" or "fight". That fracas is pronounced like the French – a silent "s" – further signified for many that the channel was being snobby.

"If it's a mark of the middle classes to use recognisably foreign words as opposed to English words such as altercation, which don't have foreign pronunciation, then, yes, I suppose you could say it's a middle-class word," says Gilliver.

While it would be rather time consuming (not to mention dull) to go through every use of "fracas" in British newspaper headlines over the past five years, a quick search does suggest that it is mostly used when referring to MPs and players and fans of cricket, rugby and golf. Prisoners, meanwhile, seem to rarely get involved in a fracas.

Still, the wordsmiths all welcome the attention that fracas has received and hope to see it used more. Robert Piguet released a tuberose perfume in 1948 called Fracas, said to be worn by Courtney Love and Madonna. It's unlikely we'll see the words "scrap" or "barney" adorning a bottle of fragrance any time soon.