I was sitting at our kitchen table this morning, idly staring round the room for amusement, when my eye fell on a big tin marked DORSET KNOBS. Actually, on closer inspection the tin proved to be more explicit than that: the label read "Moores Famous Dorset Knob Biscuits, Morecombelake, Bridport, Dorset".
Famous? Hmmm. Dorset Knobs may be famous in Dorset, but I must say I had never heard of them when I was living in London, and the first time I tried them, I wasn't entirely surprised, because they are slightly on the dry side for my taste, although the tin is wonderful for storage purposes.
But what struck me as my eye wandered round the kitchen this morning and came back again and again to DORSET KNOBS was that when the Moores family started baking in 1860 (detail from back of the tin), they must have been safe from jokes about "knobs". Indeed, I don't remember when I was a lad being conscious that people used "knob" as a synonym for the male member, and I fancy it is something that was either clandestine or of recent origin.
Now, of course, it is out in the open and yet another word has been contaminated by the snigger factor, joining the ever-lengthening repertory company of words such as willy, member, knocker, shag, gay and tit, which cannot be used in any innocent sense in male company without at least one person present displaying their sophisticated sense of humour by going haw-haw-haw, and, God help us, nudging the nearest person with a bony elbow.
(There used to be a shop in Bath which boldly went for it by choosing a name which neatly combined a nudge-nudge word from both sides of the sex barrier. The shop sold door handles, and house fittings, and brass furniture attachments. The name of the shop? Of course. Knobs and Knockers. )
The British genius for trying to add dirty overtones to almost any word is nothing new. Think seaside postcards. Think music hall. Think Morecambe and Wise, who could even get nuances out of the word "it". I remember a sketch they did once, in which they pretended they were having a reunion after not have worked together for 30 years, and not having seen each other all that time...
Wise: Eric! Good Lord! How long is it now...?
Morecambe: I beg your pardon?
Words come in and out of fashion. Knob was once innocent. Bristol used to be naughty, but I don't think it is any more. Years ago, in a shop high up in Yorkshire, in a place called Reeth, I spotted some biscuits for sale (biscuits again!) called Nig Nogs, which is a local name by which these biscuits had been known for centuries, but which have acquired racial overtones, and I expect by now some heavy-handed regulator has moved in to have a word with the manufacturer. It does happen. There used to be a kind of toothpaste available in the Far East called "Darky", which featured a drawing of a black man with shiny white teeth, and I believe you can still get it, except that it is now called "Darly".
There also used to be a gypsy jazz group from Belgium called WASO, which featured a soloist called Koon de Cauter. The group went to the USA on a tour, but de Cauter was urged to change his name for the trip, as it would sound exactly like "Coon", an old racial insult. He protested that back home it had no such overtones – it did in fact come from the local word for rabbit, cognate with our old word for rabbit, "coney" –- but he was forced to adopt another name while across the Atlantic.
Once, in a hotel in New Orleans, I spied an item on the menu called "Wop Salad". I knew that "wop" was an American insult for Italians, so I thought it must mean something else. I asked the waiter what it really was.
Waiter: It's Italian salad.
Me: But wouldn't Italians be offended be seeing "wop salad" on the menu?
Me: Why not?
Waiter: Because we don't get any Italians round here.
Actually, the people I feel sorriest for in these days of correctness are the committee of the DVLA, who have to work day and night to keep naughty and distasteful three-letter words off the car registration plates of this great land. I propose to pay tribute to their sterling work tomorrow.Reuse content