WORDS: Bottom

ONE OF THE minor pleasures to be had from the Guardian is its "Corrections and Clarifications" feature. This has nothing to do with the malicious enjoyment of others' misfortunes (or not much anyway) that the Germans call Schadenfreude. We all make mistakes. Nor is it about the Guardian's reputation for misprints, which are no more frequent now than any other paper's. The pleasure comes from the delicious quirkiness of the errors admitted to.

In one of its weekly digests of news and views it quoted Johnny Vaughan, the television personality, as having said that "the right to bear your bottom ... is entrenched in our constitution". The quote came from the Sunday Mirror but had somehow been mistranscribed. The actual phrase the Mirror used, the Guardian confessed later, was "the right to bear arse".

But this cried out for further clarification. It's true that Touchstone in As You Like It says to his rustic girlfriend, "Bear thy body more seemly, Audrey", but arses are not generally said to be borne. They are, if anything, bared.

What really puzzled me, though, was why someone had thought it necessary to alter arse to bottom. It wasn't the sort of euphemisation one expected from the Guardian, which was, after all, an early pioneer in the use of the four-letter word.

In Chaucer's time arse wouldn't even have needed euphemising. Nor for that matter would the c-word, which was a respectable clinical term in the Middle Ages and was still being seen in print, and from the pens of the best authors, in the 18th century, though Burns's printer spelt it "C-t" in 1880. Arse could be used of the rear end of anything, not just that of men and beasts, without any accusations of vulgarity, throughout the same period.

As for bottom, it didn't mean "backside", at least in literature, until the very end of the 18th century, if we're to go by the OED, whose first instance of its use in this sense comes from Dr Erasmus Darwin. A bottom in those days was more likely to be a small valley, or else a ship. Without its indefinite article, bottom meant reliability, or the means to pay one's bills. Plenty of other euphemisms, graded according to the gentility of the writer, were already available for anyone who thought arse a bit too bare.

Backside was slightly jokey; posterior carried more weight and sounded more educated, while its pompous plural, the posteriors, was in fact more descriptive, giving us the clearer picture of the thing, as did our old friend the buttocks, preferred by medical men. For true delicacy of feeling, there was always the derriere, fashionable in George III's reign and the only one in this short list that is no longer used, having been laughed into obsolescence, even among modistes.

But am I right in thinking that a certain coyness clings to bottom? Perhaps this might explain why more and more people are choosing the word bum, at least among friends.You won't find it in the Queen's Speech, but it's polite enough and it's direct. I am delighted to learn, incidentally, that it used sometimes to be spelt "bumb".