Words Monster

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The Independent Online

The Sun newspaper, master of the mot juste, did well with its headline over last week's story of Owen Oyston, the tycoon convicted of what the judge called "horrendous offences" against a 16-year-old. "pounds 40m Rape ", it said. We have been calling such men monsters for at least 400 years, though we tend to think of the word differently now: the readiest image is that of Frankenstein's botched man whose appearance put honest families to flight, or else of scaly beings that never were. As far as one can tell from those jaunty pictures of him, Mr Oyston is not a freak, but by attaching the label "monster" to them we seem to be suggesting that inside such people - or perhaps in some attic like Dorian Gray's - there lurks a hideous creature, hunched and horned.

Elizabethans were fascinated by strange beasts, wyverns, griffins and men whose heads did grow beneath their shoulders, whom they also called monsters, but I don't think they saw rapists in that way. They were going back to the early meaning of something ominously, but by no means always physically, unnatural. The Romans had taken their monstrum from the verb monere, to warn; a monstrum was a portent, or a marvel. (English 18th- century gentlemen were echoing this meaning when they told each other how "monstrously civil" or "wondrously kind" they were.) It was because monstra were inexplicable that the Romans thought of them as disturbing and, by a logical progression, probably evil; and so it was in English too.

Today only human monsters are nasty. The freakish sort has lost its terrors, It's a figure of speech. We don't really believe in it. It comes, moulded in plastic, in cereal packets (monster family size). Or it features loveably in children's literature where it is much cherished and might, with luck, turn into a handsome prince.