WORDS; Attitude

THE advertisement in a morning paper showed a group of four people relaxing in a fitted kitchen before, or perhaps after, an evidently delicious meal. They are all beautifully dressed, drinks in hand, and one of them has apparently just uttered another witticism. "This," says the legend, "is a kitchen with attitude, designed to make a strong statement in your home." The reference was to the kitchen, not to the people in it. It was a nice example of what John Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy, or the transference of the viewer's emotions to the external object being viewed. We have long been used to works of art or clothes or kitchens making statements on behalf of their creators, and why not, but kitchens with attitude are a comparatively recent arrival.

Another advertisement, this time from a posh hotel in Bombay, tells us on its website that it "surpasses the track record in terms of dedicated service and attitude for its clients". Here it's not clear whether it's the staff or the hotel itself that has attitude, but I think it must be the hotel. Whichever, attitude is the thing to have. Attitude is Everything is the title of a new book by Jeff Keller, president of Attitude is Everything Inc, which claims that success is "a matter of having a positive attitude and applying motivational principles on a daily basis". Mr Keller may not have grasped that "having an attitude", whether positive or negative, is not the same as "attitude" all by itself.

The word has come quite a way since it first lost a "the" or an "an" in front of it. This use of it has been said to derive, as Tony Thorne explains in his Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, "from the black American prisoners' shortening of the white authority figures' phrases `bad/negative/antisocial attitude'." My old headmaster used to use much the same phrases about us pupils, and we took them for granted. But it would have seemed obvious to black American prisoners that if "attitude" was a bad word among the authority figures, so far as they themselves were concerned it must surely be a good one. It meant keeping a bit of personal dignity and standing up to the screws.

Attitude began life as a 17th-century version of aptitude in its sense of "disposition" and was a technical term among artists for the posture of a figure in a painting or statue. By the next century it was being used in a general way for people's body language. It wasn't till the century after that that it became a metaphor for their frame of mind, and not till rather less than 30 years ago that it was able to stand on its own. Once out of prison, it could walk the streets with a swagger.

But it isn't the sort of swagger being shown by those nice people in the advertisement or by their expensive kitchen. For the word has changed again. It is being tamed. All it means now is "style". I suppose it could be said to have gone up in the world, but it's not half the word it was.