Glossary: Appalled and quite gone off

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ONE OF the more surprising details about the 'Cop Slap Storm' story is that Terry Dicks MP wasn't 'appalled' by it. True, he did describe the fine imposed on the policeman as an 'absolute travesty of justice'. He clearly wasn't happy with affairs. But for Mr Dicks to open his mouth without using the A- word is virtually unprecedented in recent times.

On 20 May, for example, he declared that government tactics to wreck new disability legislation were 'appalling'; on 18 April he was 'appalled' at the prospect that we might send more troops to Bosnia; on 7 February he branded an art exhibition (or blasted, according to which paper you read) as 'an appalling waste of public money'. That is by no means a comprehensive account of his relationship with the word, which has been a model of fidelity some Tory husbands might instructively address.

But Mr Dicks may feel that 'appalled' has not been as faithful to him as he has been to it. A computer search reveals that other MPs have been seen with the word 36 times since the start of the year - and that's despite the fact that we're not even looking in the right place (the word's natural habitat2 is the tabloid papers, which aren't included in our database).

Judges have been even more assiduous in this declaration of social consternation - 39 instances since the beginning of the year in which the iniquity of modern life has caused the blood to drain from the faces of members of the judiciary.

Taken together, these present a worrying picture of our political and judicial systems - of a country run by people in a state of permanent shock. Doctors appear to be made of sterner stuff, as do social workers, firemen, even policemen themselves. But MPs and judges, it seems, stagger from one emotional crisis to the next, trembling with indignation, never learning.

In most cases they don't mean it, obviously. 'Appalled' is as often as not a shorthand that allows a journalist to inject a sense of political drama, rather than being a literal description of the speaker's state of mind. Indeed there have been suggestions that some MPs have arrangements which allow tabloid journalists to attach their names to indignant quotes without going to the trouble of a telephone call - a sort of direct debit arrangement for outrage, drawing on the MP's personal reserves of moral condemnation. In these cases they only know they're 'appalled' when they see their names in the paper next day, which was the point of the exercise to begin with.

In a pedantic3 sense they are right to say they're appalled. To appal means to dismay, shock, discomfit or terrify, from the early 16th century (literally it means to make pale), but it can also mean to enfeeble or to impair ('bereft of courage or self- possession' is another definition, which certainly fits some MPs I know). Appalled wine is wine that has gone stale.

This would surely apply to the word itself, which has faded from an epithet of considerable force to a reflex of disapproval. The Prince of Wales, who thinks himself a guardian of the English language, is as guilty of this as anyone - in his mouth the word appears to be appropriate for anything from general educational collapse to the poor quality of glue on postage stamps.

Shock, which is often called in to reinforce the enfeebled 'appalled', has suffered a similar diminution. Its origins lie in a technical French term describing the encounter of two armed forces in a charge (coitio militum, as one theoretician puts it). Imagine 200 heavy cavalry hitting a square of terrified infantrymen - hoof on skull, bayonet against underbelly, an instant that transforms drilled lines into a bloody mess - and you have something of the word's original punch.

These days, though, shock is little more than an unpleasant surprise, what you get when you open an unusually large bill. Similarly, people declare themselves to be 'in shock' (which, strictly speaking, describes a serious medical condition requiring immediate treatment) after the mildest disturbances. This notion of shock as a sort of demonstration of your sensibility is indispensible to tabloid newspapers, occasionally producing quite ludicrous effects.

Some time ago two British holidaymakers shopped a soap star for smoking marijuana on holiday in Majorca. By their account 'the two shocked fans' had noticed the actor urinating from the balcony above them, an incident that shocked them so profoundly, they immediately invited him down to join them for a drink.

So in this case 'shock' was simply a journalistic prophylactic, a way of insulating the tale- tellers from the behaviour they described while at the same time amplifying an essentially trivial story. The trouble is that, as with any over-stimulated nerve, numbness is beginning to set in - 'appalled' is coming to the end of its useful life. I'm keeping my eye on Mr Dicks, that permanently inflamed Member, for its replacement.

1 From the Italian modello, diminutive of modo from Latin modus, measure, size.

2 Literally 'it inhabits', used to introduce location in Latin floras and faunas.

3 From the Italian pedante, a teacher. Possibly a contraction of the Latin paedagogare, to teach.