GLOSSARY / We used to be mates; now we're merely loveys

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'I AM gobsmacked,' said Emma Thompson in her breathy post-Oscar interview, going on, if I remember it correctly, to talk excitedly about 'me mates' back home. This may have gone down well on the West Coast but it sounded decidedly dodgy here, more Me and My Girl than Howards End. It was a little performance, obviously, a bit of lovey demotic, but what was interesting was the way she was toeing two lines of demarcation with the word 'mates' - those of sex and class.

Like 'bloke' (1), the word is too male, too connected with the sodalities of the splash-bath and the saloon bar, to sound convincing in a woman's mouth. Besides, the principal meaning of the word, its sense of close friendship, is being nibbled away by its use as a way of referring to complete strangers.

The recent commercial for Marmite (2) - boot-camp troops, united in the agonies of a route march and chanting 'My mate, Marmite' - clearly drew on the older sense of the word; the promise was of blunt no-nonsense virtues to satisfy blunt no-nonsense appetites ('mates' eat their bread sliced thick, with lots of butter and lots of Marmite); there was a suggestion of loyalty and trustworthiness which the copywriters presumably hoped would be reciprocated by the consumer.

In fact the conflation of eating and friendship is pretty close to home. The word 'mate' is surprisingly old - the Oxford English Dictionary's first English references date from the late 14th century - but its origins lie still further back in words such as the Original Teutonic gamaton, meaning a companion at table.

As it develops it finds its principal uses among unusually close associations of men working and living together, hence the nautical usage and its use by early prospectors. This is almost certainly why it is so common in Australia (where mateship is virtually a holy estate) - either picked up on the long voyage out, in the prison barracks (3), or the gold diggings.

Until relatively recently it did not have working-class associations, either. In 1568 one chronicler wrote that 'the Duke of York and his mates were lodged within the citie', which conjures up a boozy stag-party in a bed-sit. Historically the word is broadly classless, but also acutely aware of class - mates are 'our kind of people'.

These days, though, mate is increasingly used as a bridge across social divisions. In an unscientific survey I couldn't find anyone who would confess to calling a friend 'mate' except in parody, but a few respondents admitted to using it with strangers. We English have always needed these informal addresses, lacking a hierarchy-free appellation. Where the French use monsieur to all and sundry, we have to mumble awkwardly.

Personally I've always envied people who are good at 'mate- ing' with strangers - adding that casual noun to make an instruction less peremptory or a question less coldly demanding. I am usually too embarrassed at the presumptuous chumminess (4) of the word, coming out with a swallowed gulp more like mmf.

What is useful about mate is that it moves both ways along the social scale; where 'guv' implies a notion of economic superiority, 'mate' hints (fraudulently perhaps) at a casual equality, an easy exchange of money for services rather than the fraught relationship of employee and employer. These days you can call your plumber mate, and he can mate you back (she would still probably not), though the younger you both are the more likely this is.

Commerce gives us another clue. When Richard Branson launched his brand of condoms, at the height of the safe sex campaign, he called them Mates. The pun was useful, obviously, and the implication that these weren't clinical objects (Durex, like Pyrex and Copydex, has a dated whiff of the laboratory to it). Mates, you were supposed to feel, were approachable and absolutely trustworthy.

Perhaps, though, there is a hint of the newer usage there, too, that capacity of 'mate' to take the edge off social embarrassment. 'Packet of Mates, please . . . mate.'

(1) Origin unknown; poss. connection with Romany and Hindustani loke (man). Partridge also notes Dutch blok (fool).

(2) From the French marmite, a cooking pot. See the label.

(3) From the Italian and Spanish baracca, a soldier's tent or similar construction.

(4) Chum has been recorded since 1684. Conjecturally from a contraction of chamber-fellow or chamber-mate.