Glossary: A decent sort of oblique compliment

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CAN YOU identify this politician? 'A decent man doing his best for his party and his country'; 'honourable and decent, which is a rare asset in politics these days'; 'a decent human being'; 'a strong following among mothers, who thought he was a decent man who wanted the best for them and their families'.

I'll confess right away that I cheated1 a little with the last quotation, by putting the verbs into a posthumous tense, but apart from that small adjustment all those remarks were made about John Major in the months leading up to the death of John Smith. This isn't to argue any sort of equivalence, because since last Thursday morning 'decent' has undergone an instructive adjustment in meaning - a matter of nuance at most, but one which I suspect tells us something about the political landscape.

Look more closely at the ways in which 'decent' has been used about the Prime Minister and it isn't hard to detect a pattern2 . 'Decent, if inadequate,' writes one journalist. 'A very honest, decent man, but he is not as strong as Mrs Thatcher,' suggests a veteran Tory. Norman Lamont (allegedly) declared that Conservative MPs had got what they voted for, 'a decent bloke who has no strong views on anything and is not a good orator'.

In other words 'decent' is code for 'OK, but not very inspiring'. When President Bush wanted to put his opponent down without being accused of negative campaigning he described Michael Dukakis as a 'decent' man. To describe goods or services as decent is to say 'can't complain really'. How far would you travel to eat food that was merely 'decent'?

This tepid3 approval sits at the heart of the word. It derives from the Latin decere, to become, to be fitting (decorous and decorate are similarly derived) and most of its uses are associated with an observance of rank. 'Since there must be ornaments both in painting and poetry,' wrote Dryden in 1695, 'if they are not necessary, they must at least be decent, that is in their due place and but moderately used.'

At first, it is often associated with the behaviour of kings or aristocrats - decency is the submission of the powerful to laws they could break with impunity, a recognition of understood codes of behaviour. It makes no sense without shared values.

But the reservation in the word arrives early too. 'Respectable means rich, and decent means poor,' says Lady C in Thomas Love Peacock's Crotchet Castle (1831). 'I should die if I heard my family called decent.' Decency begins as an aristocratic merit, self-restraint by those who could afford to do anything, but it soon becomes a poor man's virtue, obedience on the part of those who cannot afford to get out of line.

Decency is about rules (even buildings can be described as decent, if they obey architectural proprieties), and it has suffered a little from its association with social manners rather than morals, the suggestion that decency involves no ethical extravagance. You couldn't describe a saint as a decent person: it's too workaday and plain to sit well. Pope teases the point out in a fine couplet - 'Virtue she finds too painful an endeavour / Content to dwell in decencies for ever'.

'Decent' acquired a casual geniality in this century, in phrases like 'a decent chap' and 'that's awfully decent of you'. But in politics it generally hints at mediocrity. Perhaps there was something of this in the eulogies for John Smith, the word enabled political opponents to do the decent thing for a decent interval.

But I think there was something more to the sudden prevalence of the word (in the three days before his death, 'decent' and associated phrases appear 74 times in our computer database, against 124 times in the three days after). There are instances of the dismissive use, but many people (including Tories) chose to intensify the adjective; 'genuinely decent', 'truly decent' and 'thoroughly decent' were used, as if to prevent the word from damning with faint praise.

Decency too seems to have hardened from a minimal requirement into something more solid, a virtue in its own right, whatever Pope might think. There were even those who wondered whether the reaction to Mr Smith's death might usher in a 'new decency' to British political life. This may explain why many people were surprised by their feelings - they weren't just grieving for a man, but for a loss that occurred a long time ago. It's difficult to look down on 'decent' any more as a level beneath which we won't allow ourselves to fall. These days it is something we have to clamber back up to.

1 Variant of escheat, property lost through legal forfeit or fine. A cheat was originally the object secured by theft or trickery, subsequently the action.

2 From the French patron, which means both patron and pattern. Something to be copied, an exemplar.

3 From the Latin tepere, to be warm.