Words: Intimate

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THE TELEVISION presenter Chris Tarrant has plausibly denied that he and Sophie Rhys-Jones had what he called "an affair", and what the Guardian in its report called "a relationship". Both affair and relationship are among those tricky words that are required to do double duty, making no end of trouble for foreigners. The only way to avoid ambiguity is to attach an appropriate adjective, though even here there are nuances that have more to do with idiom than with logic. There is no way of explaining why a "close relationship" has no sexual connotations - politicians and businessmen may be said to have close relationships without any implication of scandal, or at least not sexual scandal - while "an intimate relationship" usually means Only One Thing, though close and intimate are in other contexts almost synonymous.

Intimate is itself a dubious word. Experts have an intimate acquaintance with their subjects, which has always struck me as something of a contradiction in terms, since the usual implication of acquaintance is that it's the reverse of intimate. But if you talk about an intimate friend you are liable to misunderstanding. Just how intimate, eh? "Oh yes, we were very close," one hears oneself saying. "I knew her well ... but not intimately" one adds, if only to forestall knowing looks.

There was no trouble with this ancient word - we borrowed it from Latin more than 400 years ago - until near the end of the last century, when the lawyers got hold of the word intimacy to indicate something more specific than a liaison. Intimacy was no longer a sharing of confidences. It had progressed from being a condition, or state of affairs (no, I don't mean affairs), to being an act. After that there was no hope for it. And it was inevitable that it would drag intimate down with it into the category of mealy-mouthed euphemisms.

The verb "to intimate", meaning to disclose, presents us with another contradiction. In its Elizabethan period it meant "to make generally known", as had the Latin from which it came. But intimacy between friends involves the sharing of secrets, not their disclosure. In good classical Latin intimus had meant no more than "close", so what persuaded later writers to use the verb intimare to mean "publish"? The etymologist Walter Skeat was so foxed by this that he decided that verb and adjective came from different sources, the verb from Latin and the adjective from the French, but since the French also came from the Latin, this wasn't much help. Meanwhile the verb has itself fundamentally changed. Having begun as a word for "proclaim", it now more often means "to hint". If we say the Sun's report intimated that someone may have had a relationship, we don't mean that the Sun presented it as a fact, do we?

Talking of euphemisms, I see that the Guardian is still having trouble with the word bottom, which I was writing about the other week. First the paper had to confess to having substituted bottom for arse. Now it reveals that in another article it "should have referred to Hell's Kitchen in New York rather than to Hell's Bottom". Do I detect a fixation here?