Christopher Hirst: The truth behind the It-girls

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The Independent Online

First recognised in this paper in March, "chav" has now embedded itself in our collective consciousness as the term for baseball-capped, gold-chain-wearing habitués of shopping precincts.

First recognised in this paper in March, "chav" has now embedded itself in our collective consciousness as the term for baseball-capped, gold-chain-wearing habitués of shopping precincts. But I have doubts about the widespread adoption of "freeganism" (a hybrid of free and veganism that means getting as much food as possible for free), "DWY" (driving while yakking) and "retrosexual" (a man indifferent to his appearance). Apparently, this is a spin on "metrosexual" (a US term for a smart, straight city type), another word that has failed to catch on over here.

All these terms are among this year's "words of the moment" as listed in Larpers and Shroomers: The Language Report by the television word expert Susie Dent (Oxford, £9.99). Still, the most unlikely candidates may enter everyday speech. The book's trawl of neologisms from the past century reveals that many expressions have been around longer than you might think. "Dumb down" dates from 1933, while "spliff" came in three years earlier. Other words are very much of their time. "Brainwashing" (1950) is a classic term of the Cold War. A joke of the era asked: "What's the difference between a Turkish bath and a Russian bath?" Answer: "With a Russian bath you get your brain washed at the same time."

The book's suggestion that "It-girl" dates from 1968 may be puzzling. Defined as "a girl who is sexually alluring", the term was first applied to the film star Clara Bow in the Twenties, then revived for Tara Palmer-Tompkinson and other bubble-headed socialites in the Nineties. Susie Dent will be too young to know that the 1968 usage derives from the adoption of the Twenties It Girl as a punning logo for the hippie paper International Times. Unfortunately, in typical pot-head style, the wrong silent star was used. Instead of cheerful Clara Bow, the vamp Theda Bara came to represent the paper.

If you find yourself irritated by "bling bling" (2000) or "have it large" (1993), it may be consoling to reflect that previous generations have endured much the same ordeal. Excessive use of "cheerio" may have driven the more staid element to apoplexy in 1914, while the adoption of "hip" to mean "stylish" must have been a puzzle in 1905. I'm pleased that I was not around in 1909 when "tiddly-om-pom-pom" ("representing the sound of a brass band," Ms Dent informs us) was on everyone's lips. But this expression, or something similar, may have been around for a while before. In The Diary of a Nobody (1894), a visitor to the Pooter household indulges in a catch-phrase of the day: "Tum, tum; then the band all played." Mr Pooter comments: "I did not know what this meant, but they all roared." Mr P speaks for many of us.

It was in the bag back in the Sixties

How do feel about men with handbags? I don't mean a ditzy Lulu Guinness-style bit of frou-frou, but a fine, manly handbag, possibly in black crocodile or rugged cowhide with lots of zips. Hmm. Still doesn't work, does it? They can get away with these things on the continent, but not here. Though logic dictates that the ballast that bulks out male clothing would more sensibly be held in a svelte container, the English will have none of it.

Yet The Independent on Sunday has declared that "the latest essential accessory for a man is a bag". Fortunately, the accompanying photographs, snapped on the streets of London, reveal that young men of our capital are far from aping the handbag-carrying exquisites of Paris and Berlin. The bags sported by these stylish Londoners include an old Army forage bag, a plastic souvenir of Denmark and an ancient, battered green thing festooned in badges.

I'd date the male adoption of the shoulder bag to 1969. It was around then that the woollen shoulder bag came into vogue. One reason for its popularity was to do with the literature of the times. What was the point of carrying around such ostentatiously hip tomes as Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game or Robert M Pirsig's Seventies bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in a shiny leather briefcase? One did not reject the military-industrial complex while retaining its fashion accessories. However, the woolly bag did have certain drawbacks. It got very soggy in the rain, your books got battered to hell (no great loss in the case of Pirsig) and the shoulder strap was damned uncomfortable.

After some years of using plastic carrier bags (economical, but not the sexiest of accessories), I returned to the shoulder bag when I discovered that Barbour made a canvas version derived from the trout bags favoured by ghillies and other outdoor types. Here, at last, was a bag that had flair without the slightest taint of effemi-nacy, but I'd reckoned without the prejudices of the unenlightened. "Nice bag," said my boss at the time. "Bit poofy, though." I just hope today's generation of male bag-users appreciates the burden shouldered by their fine, manly predecessors.

Uphill struggle for our Olympic bid

Though the crowds that cheered our Olympians on Monday appeared unanimous in their belief that London's bid for the 2012 Games was in the bag, I beg to differ. After visiting Athens for the Olympics, it is sadly apparent that London has some way to go before securing the approval of the International Olympic Committee. It might help if our capital could pass a single month without suffering some calamitous transport breakdown. Of course, there's no reason why London should not match Athens, as long as we construct a new airport and motorway ring-road, along with a dual carriageway and Tube line from the centre of the city to the proposed Olympic site in east London. Oh, and we should also reduce the population by two-thirds. Do that and London would be a shoo-in.

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