Words: Mandarin

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CHOP-CHOP time for mandarins: the Treasury wants to axe up to a third of its senior civil servants; other departments may follow. Mandarin carries a quiet note of contempt with it, which it used not to. It came originally from mantra, the Sanskrit for counsel; the Chinese mandarin, or public official, was respected for his wisdom, particularly since he spoke a language incomprehensible to ordinary working people. Much the same could once be said of our own mandarins, many of whom still know Greek and tend to talk in an old-fashioned way. But the tables have been turned: now it's the ordinary working people who are incomprehensible to the mandarin. Or so the complaint goes.

It wasn't until the start of this century that mandarin could mean any sort of high-up, not just a Chinese one. Mandarin dolls, those Victorian mantelshelf toys, could be made to nod their heads like Sir Humphrey saying 'Yes Minister', but the idea at the time was that they looked sagely inscrutable. However, mandarins were already being gently mocked in the 1750s with Samuel Foote's ridiculous Grand Panjandrum, whose 'little round button at top' was what Chinese mandarins wore on their hats, the colour indicating what grade the wearer had reached.

But why are certain oranges called mandarins? Some say it is because they are superior to other oranges, others that their glowing skins are the colour of mandarins' garments. Neither view is convincing, and I suggest you pick your own.

Meanwhile, there are three views on the mandarin duck. The first says it was so named because, like the orange, it was finer than the rest of its kind, the second because of its orange pinions, and the third because in imperial China it was embroidered on the robes of seventh-grade civil servants. All rather confusing. But haven't mandarins always preferred things in triplicate?