GLOSSARY / Maybe not spoilt, but certainly naughty

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'I NEVER like to use the word naughty,' said Nanny Smith in one of the programmes on child-taming she currently appears in at tea-time on Sundays. I don't really believe in Jungian archetypes1 but Nanny Smith has me worried: of those who have seen the programme, a surprising number confess that they find themselves adopting foetal positions on the sofa and feeling a deep yearning for her to come to their houses and tuck them up for the night.

She is undoubtedly remarkable, combining a brisk refusal to entertain the wilder theories of desperate parents with a Crocodile Dundee-like ability to stare down a charging two-year-old. Her no- nonsense approach isn't quite what you might expect, though. She will have no truck2 with notions that children are 'spoilt' or naughty; I haven't heard her use the former word but everything else she says suggests that it would be anathema to her, a suggestion that children exist not for themselves but for their parents.

Spoilt has pretty much become a taboo word anyway these days. Try using it about someone else's child in their presence and you will have a vivid demonstration of what follows the encounter between a cigarette butt and a pool of petrol3 . Use it of your own and it feels archaic somehow, an accusation rather than a confession of failure.

It entered the language relatively late in English, the first citation for a specific application to children being in 1648. The word it replaced was 'cocker' (to coddle, to indulge or over-protect), which obviously was viewed as holding many dangers. 'No creatures more cocker their young than the Asse and the Ape,' writes one authority, bending biology to his purpose. Oddly, 'spoilt' owes its ascendency to poetry rather than educational theory, being cemented into our vocabulary by the alliterative proverb 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'.

In Latin, Solomon's proverb is Qui parcit virge, odit filium - which is more accurately translated by the Authorised Version's 'He that spareth his rod, hateth his child'. Samuel Butler brings the familiar version into existence in Hudibras in 1664, but the poetic instinct has been at work before that. When Langland translates the proverb in his great medieval poem Piers Plowman he opts for 'Who-so spareth the sprynge spilleth his children'.

'Spilleth' sounds like an early version of 'spoil' but turns out to be even more brutal - it means kill. (Alliteration, incidentally, has always been popular with tough disciplinarians. Those pallid young floggers at the Tory party conference chant 'Bring back the birch', not 'let us re-examine the judicial use of corporal punishment, oh yes'.)

Distaste for the word isn't entirely new. In 1876 you find a conservative educationalist lamenting the fact that it had passed out of fashion '55 years before', so we shouldn't think we're the first generation to have problems with its implications. Spoilt for what, would be the question now. Spoilt for obedience, spoilt for the project of giving parents a quiet life? It obviously won't quite do, but its absence leaves a gap.

What word do you use when a child has stared you levelly in the eyes and poured his baked beans into the cutlery drawer? Unhappy? He will be after a good telling-off. Anti- social? A statement of the obvious, not a diagnosis. Naughty? In the absence of anything else I think I'd probably settle for that.

In the meantime, it may be possible to rehabilitate 'spoilt'. When Butler used the word it meant what it does now, marred (also the origin of the Midlands dialect 'mardy'), ruined, damaged goods. But in its ancient sense it delivers something more subtle. It first means to strip a body of its clothes or armour (originally from the Latin word spolium, the skin or hide of an animal), especially in combat.

In other words you can only spoil a dead, defeated or weaker enemy. In that sense the word might meet our changed attitudes, recognising the loving battle we fight with our children and returning the odium to the parent who deprives a child of the social armour it needs to survive in the world.

1 From the Greek arche, first, and typos, impress or stamp.

2 From the French troquer, to barter or exchange.

3 From the medieval Latin petroleum (petra, rock, and oleum, oil). In use since at least 1596.