GLOSSARY / Tough? No nonsense? Horse-S-H-one-T

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the more astonishing features of the Bastardgate affair is that a word so meek and domesticated can still cause such a fuss. I don't want to be too blase about this - after all you don't often hear prime ministers levelling it at their ministers (although when you look closely at the context of John Major's remark you can see that you still haven't - 'bastards' clearly refers to enemies 'out there', a category his three right-wing cabinet members haven't yet joined).

It is also true that the recording has the frisson of a Candid Camera scene - of seeing the authentic man. It actually did look as if a Civil Service minder had flipped a hidden switch beneath the Prime Minister's grey suit; instead of the Disney animatronic we're familiar with, you could see and hear a human, his syntax and body suddenly relaxed.

The more shameless of the Tory spin-doctors (Sir Norman Fowler leading the pack) have picked up on this, attempting to persuade us that the Prime Minister's language not only proves that he is a real person but that he is a real man, too - tough, no nonsense, capable. This is, as the Prime Minister might put it himself, horse-S-H-one-T. The more closely you look at Mr Major's swearing, the more it reinforces his public image - that of an essentially decent man ill at ease with expressions of power.

This isn't to argue that there is any particular virtue in obscenity, just that if you're going to swear, you shouldn't do it timidly, like an inner-city vicar venturing a few 'bloodies' to put the youth club at their ease. Even in his choice of abusive epithet the Prime Minister betrays his essential niceness.

Bastard1 is an odd word, the verbal equivalent of the matey slap on the back that trembles between aggression and affection. In Australia, a country with a far more robust tradition of political abuse, it virtually qualifies as an honorific. Indeed, I shudder to think of the scorn with which Australian readers will greet the news that saying 'bastard' has become a British test of manhood. Bastard is one of those words that depends for its effect on an impulse of the breath, and Mr Major was in jocular rather than vituperative mood when he used it.

It is also a word that has a perfectly respectable day job, being used to describe an adulterated or inferior form of almost anything - sugar, wine, paper, cloth, even calligrapher's scripts (this column, appropriately enough, is set in a bastard measure - that is, the column width is a variation on the standard used in our pages). Little old ladies probably avoid some of its botanical uses, but it isn't, like some of the genital alternatives Mr Major might have used, a word that carries shock in its very syllables.

When it came to 'shit', the Prime Minister couldn't even bring himself to utter the word aloud, substituting a mimsy euphemism last heard on air when Jane Clark was asked what she thought of her husband's philandering. Even his use of 'the F-word' was fairly innocuous, in a phrase ('fuck-up') that is moving towards the genial bluntness of 'bugger'. According to the Sun, he dropped his voice when he said it anyway. Short of coyly murmuring 'Pardon my French', the Prime Minister could hardly have made his brush with bad language more decorous. Only the hypocritical prissiness of the British press ('Oooh] You swore] I'm going to tell]) could suggest anything else.

Richard Nixon revealed in his memoirs that he regretted having allowed 'expletive deleted' to be substituted for the actual words in the Watergate transcripts. His reputation was such that people tended to fill the gap with something far more vile than he had used. Despite the valiant attempts of his colleagues to paint him as a political trooper, Mr Major is unlikely ever to suffer from this problem. The F-word? 'Flip', maybe, or 'fudge'? The B- word? 'Botheration' or 'blast'?

1 From the Old French bast, pack-saddle, plus the pejorative suffix ard. Muleteers used their pack-saddles as beds, so a fils de bast, or bastard, implied a child born out of the marriage bed. The Shakespearean puns on base derive from a false etymology.