The French say Yes to new nouns

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The Independent Online
BOBBY FISCHER may be making the sort of comeback that George Bush can only dream of, and the French may be getting a referendum of the sort the British government would never dare entrust to the British, but on the whole things are set gloomy to dismal for anyone interested in current affairs. So it was cheering to read this week that David Mellor has bounced back into the news in a non-controversial, uplifting way.

(For younger readers who may not remember him, Mellor was, in the heady early days of the Major government, the Minister of Fun, Heritage, Press Behaviour, Inflatable Stonehenges and The Royal Opera House Deficit, and indeed still is.)

But apparently the French remember him better than we do, because he is reportedly commemorated over there in a slang expression, le david mellor. This does not mean any of the things we might expect it to mean. It does not mean 'a misdemeanour', 'an escapade', or even 'an attempt to set up a charter for the rights of young people in the acting business'.

The French are too cool for that. For a minister to have subsidiary relationships is so common in France that they have no need to talk about it, and thus no particular expression for it. Here, where standards are more rigid, we expect our ministers to be family types, so we don't go around saying: 'He's doing a John Major', meaning 'he's determinedly domestic and faithful'. It is taken for granted. Hence the delighted shock when things slip up.

No, le david mellor apparently means 'a bad haircut'. Unexpected, eh? If you look at photos of Mellor, or even the man himself, you can see he certainly sports a curious haircut, and presents an engagingly dishevelled mien, but to name a haircut after him, why on earth?

I suppose we can't hope to understand this unless we place ourselves in French shoes. David Mellor, they are told, is the British minister for culture. He is in the news because of a relationship with an actress. Fine, they say. In France, this is not news, but if the British wish to put it in their papers, well, fine. Then they see his photo. This man? This man with this mad coiffure, without any sign of style, is in charge of British culture? Ah, this is news]

The French reaction will partly be based on an unconscious comparison with their own arts supremo, Jack Lang, after whom a bad haircut could never be named. Lang has filmstar looks. He even has a curiously unFrench, filmstar-type name. He doesn't talk like a filmstar, he talks like a French intellectual - windily and willingly about everything from poetry to bandes dessinees.

He is exactly the sort the British would expect the French to put in charge of the arts, which may be why, though a household face in France, he is totally unknown in Britain. He's as French as Mellor is English, and could only hit our headlines by do-

ing something wholly unFrench.

Still, now that French slang has made a start with le david mellor, it would be a shame to stop there, especially when so much other good material is to hand. I have drawn up a brief list of possibles . . .

Un norman lamont: means an over-rich hairdo, like a meringue. Also, a man kept at home when everyone else is on holiday to make sure the family silver is not tampered with, even though there is no family silver.

Un rifkind: a man who has managed to lose his regional accent but not to replace it with another one.

Un david owen: virtually the same as a garry owen - a wild and doomed rush down the middle into enemy territory.

Un michel checkland: one whose success can only be measured by the skill with which he defends his successor, hence a thankless task, a no-win situation.

Un brandreth: said of a man who sees Parliament as the ultimate parlour game.

A la bottomley: the process of going very slowly and cautiously down a cul-de-sac.

Un norman fowler: a book written by a man about whom nobody can remember anything, either before or after reading it.

Un john smith: a man who wishes anonymously to check into a hotel, take over a British political party, etc.

Un hillhead: a politician or soldier who wishes to be remembered by his last defeat.

Une sara keays: a woman with absolutely no urge to make money by going to court . . .

Any other suggestions will be treated in complete confidence.

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