Leading Article: Second wind for the British bounder

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THE WORD 'bounder' made something of a comeback yesterday. 'Britain's Biggest Bounder', proclaimed the Mail on Sunday's front page, reporting Major James Hewitt's alleged claim in a forthcoming book to have had an affair with the Princess of Wales. The headline was inspired by the Tory MP Sir Nicholas Bonsor, who had commented: 'Hewitt's behaviour is abominable, he is the biggest bounder I have ever come across.'

Had Sir Nicholas, an Old Etonian baronet, been nearer the front line of modern usage he would probably have used a shorter, more sibilant word. Or he could have opted for the even more dated and more unequivocally pejorative 'cad'. As confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary, a bounder may be 'a person of objectionable manner . . . a cad'; but the word can also be used as 'a term of playful abuse'. A bounder was originally someone who bounded offensively about: a 'vulgarly irrepressible person, generally a man, within Society', according to A Dictonary of Slang and Unconventional English, which dates it to Cambridge University in the 1880s. Initially, just as cads were low townsfolk in Eton selling services to schoolboys, bounders were essentially outsiders. They became associated with better manners, even a certain charm, coupled with a marked lack of scruples, especially where women and money were concerned. A number of Tory MPs would seem to qualify.

The bounder's heyday was probably in the Twenties and Thirties. 'Women adore a bounder,' said Somerset Maugham in Cakes and Ale. Even women could be bounders, according to Angela Brazil, in whose New Girl at St Chad's (1912) a character observes: 'Flossie is a bounder.' In later life, Flossie was more likely to be termed an adventuress. As for Major Hewitt, he will be doing well if he is called nothing worse in the next few weeks.

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