Words; Slur

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Tony Blair's new-style Question Time was supposed to bring some dignity, cut the sledging. It hadn't worked by the time the House rose last week, but I noticed one tiny victory for moderation of speech. It concerned Lord Simon, former BP chairman and now Minister for - what was the fancy title? - ah yes, Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, who was accused by the Opposition of having improperly kept his shares and stashing them in a haven. Mr Blair had a word for such wild talk. It was a slur, that's what it was. But it wouldn't have been the word in the days of Tory misrule. Then it would almost certainly have been a smear, a nastier, stickier, smellier word altogether, when Members were said to be smearing each other on a regular basis.

There is no historical reason why slur should be any politer. Its first meaning, as recorded in the OED, was a thin sort of mud (slurry came from the same family). The 17th-century verb is defined as "to stain, smirch, sully" - not much difference between this and smear. However, there was some ambivalence about a slur. It was a question of whether the mud stuck. When Victorians talked, as they sometimes did, about "a disgraceful slur" they implied it shouldn't stick, but when they said "a slur and a disgrace" they probably meant it should. Incidentally this has nothing to do with the word police witnesses use for the speech of drunken suspects, which is differently derived, and began by meaning a gliding or sliding, once an Elizabethan dancing term, later a word for a smudge on a printer's proof; people used to accuse each other of "slurring over the facts".

Anyway, there's no doubt now that smears are more malicious than slurs. Meanwhile if the charge really is justified there's always stain. Mud can be wiped off, but a stain on the character (like a blot on the escutcheon) doesn't come out.

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