Words: Lads

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'LASS behind The Lad' said the Daily Mirror headline, confident that its readers would know that the lass in question could only be the wife of Jack Charlton, heroic manager of the Irish football team. It sounds a neat nickname, till one remembers that the original 18th- century Jack the Lad was a thief.

I notice that Mr Charlton himself, in press interviews after Ireland's World Cup victory, referred to his team as 'the players' when nine out of ten other managers would have called them 'the lads' (as in 'the lads did well, Brian'). The expression is also, of course, in the stock vocabulary of the shop steward ('the lads won't like it'). Elsewhere, the lads are any charmed circle of like-minded jolly good fellows (as are the boys); age has nothing to do with it, nor did it when the word first appeared in our language. A lad was a servant, or follower. Housman's Shropshire Lad was a ploughboy, and I imagine that in choosing his title Housman had in mind the lad's calling as well as his upbringing.

The OED puts a little dagger against this early definition to show that it is obsolete, but when football managers and shop stewards use it one fancies one hears a faint echo of the ancient word. It survives, too, in racing stables, where a lad is a groom of any age and, indeed, of either sex. The OED's Victorian first edition was ignorant of this meaning. It also put a dagger against 'a man of spirit and vigour' - another revival. It seems to have come back early this century, having hibernated for more than 100 years. Now we all know what sort of person 'a bit of a lad' is.

The definition of a lad as a young person is nearly as old as the other, so for many generations the two overlapped. There was no need for confusion. The French likewise find no difficulty with

garcon. But lad is a sweet word, better than boy. Ask any octogenarian whether he would rather be called an old boy or an old lad. Whatever his age, a lad has a twinkle in his eye. A good word for Mr Charlton's Irishmen.