Glossary: Moral value is a matter of vertical judgement

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The Independent Online
THE WORD 'despicable' occurred twice in rapid succession on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday, one of those verbal chimes that make a word snag on your attention, instead of flowing smoothly and functionally past. The first use was by Jimmy Hill, referring to a tackle1 by Eric Cantona, the Manchester United player, and the second, if I remember correctly, was Sir Norman Fowler categorising media treatment of the Prime Minister.

They didn't just stick out because of the echo, though. They were strong words in both contexts, slightly upping the ante on what you might conventionally have expected. Fouls and press bullying are more usually 'disgraceful' or 'regrettable', phrases which don't escalate the conflict. 'Despicable' is fighting talk, a claim on the moral high ground.

In fact the word derives from the Latin despicare, to look down on, and it is just one of a large collection of words in English which invest ideas of height with moral force. Height isn't quite what I mean, though. You'd have to use a clumsier phrase - relative vertical positioning, perhaps - because the point is not altitude above sea- level so much as where the object described can be found in a mental hierarchy.

There are many forms this can take, but in all of them high and low are morally non-negotiable. The word 'vile' - also popular with politicians who need to signal that they're not just going through the motions of indignation - derives from the Latin vilis, which means of low value or price.

Similarly to say that someone is 'not in the same league' as someone else implies a ladder of values, with the most desirable at the top. This spatial arrangement is very powerful in the language, much more so than its horizontal equivalent, which famously results in the words 'sinister' and 'dextrous'.

In fact I will go out on a limb and argue that this has to do with the shape we have as animals. Externally, at least, we're symmetrically arranged around a vertical axis, so oppositions between right and left are bound to have less immediate force in our mental geography.

Some cultural distinctions have grown up (the negative associations of sinister date from the Roman theatre, which reserved the left-hand stage entrance for the villains) and neurology may offer further explanations in the distinction between right-brain and left- brain activity.

But the fact remains that the distinction is effectively invisible: mirror-image a photograph of someone and most people wouldn't notice. However, look someone up and down and the case is quite different. The shape of our body has clearly affected the shape of what we say. The metaphor of the body politic, which assumes governance from the top and functional support from the extremities and belly, is just one piece of evidence that we invest considerable moral meaning in what we look like.

Even wilder speculation might suggest that there is a very ancient vanity at play, a verbal equivalent for that biped propaganda poster which shows homo sapiens slowly uncurling from a knuckle2 -scraping primate. We're in the wilder realms of speculation here so I will leave the full thesis for the First Professor of Bio-Semantics, an (unpaid) chair which I hope to endow at Borchester University (formerly Ambridge Technical and Agricultural College). But anyone who thinks this is entirely crazy might like to reflect on why we talk of a person's 'standing' or 'stature' in the community or say approvingly of another that she 'can stand on her own two feet'.

What is undoubtedly true is that Jimmy Hill and Sir Norman wanted to make the objects of their scorn feel small, inferior, low, beneath contempt and - implicitly3 - assert their own values as superior, elevated, upright. We have come a very long way from the spectacle of two chimpanzees rearing up on their hind legs, increasing their height in a combat for dominance, but is it entirely fanciful to hear a very ancient note in those screeches of outrage?

1 Middle Dutch tacken, to lay hold of, to grasp.

2 Apparently a diminutive of a word for bone, the Middle Low German knoke.

3 From the Latin implicatus, entwined, folded together.