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".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

    Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

    £21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee