Words: Embarrassed

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POLITICIANS are constantly suffering from embarrassment these days, if one is to believe the newspapers. Last week they told us how 'embarrassed' the Government was by a European Court ruling about workers who had been affected by privatisation. Then Paddy Ashdown looked 'annoyed and embarrassed' by the defection of a candidate, and the Labour Party was equally 'embarrassed' when an OECD report seemed to say that the Social Chapter could endanger jobs.

It's certainly a cliche-word, but we should not be surprised by it. This is not so much because politicians get themselves into more scrapes these days. Sportsmen are also easily embarrassed, like the English rugby player sent off in Port Elizabeth last week after thumping an opponent ('It was a tremendous embarrassment to me').

No, it's just that embarrassed is such a lovely word. What is specially pleasing about it is the image it evokes of important public figures crossing their legs, hanging their heads and turning the colour of beetroot. For whatever its applications, embarrassment carries with it the idea that it is something you squirm with. Even the company that is 'financially embarrassed' makes us think of a person desperately exploring his pockets for the cab fare he finds he hasn't got.

This is not quite what the word first meant. An embarras was an obstruction or encumbrance (the French for traffic jam is sometimes un embarras de voitures). So you were embarrassed with riches, but then you could also be embarrassed without them, because the metaphor had swiftly progressed from suggesting an obstacle to suggesting any sort of difficulty. Embarrass was still being used 100 years ago to mean 'complicate': a speaker could embarrass a debate, for example, with points of order.

Now the comic image has prevailed. It may be something to do with our childhood memories. How easily did we blush for shame when we wore the wrong clothes to school, or said the wrong thing at breakfast] Oh, the embarrassment]