words : SAD

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The Independent Online

"I AM very sad," said John Major, "at the end of the marriage." He added that it was "very sad" for the Waleses, in fact "everyone is very sad" about it. The Evening Standard's headline put the matter in a nutshell: "I'm very sad, says Major." But we must not mock. Would your sound-bite have been better? And at least Mr Major avoided saying that the Prince and Princess themselves were sad. That might have been open to misinterpretation. To call a person sad, particularly among the streetwise, is not kind, "you sad man" being an increasingly common insult, giving the impression that the speaker is up with the times.

Not that it's exactly new. Slang dictionaries record "sad sack" - a US army term for a soldier who is pathetic and inadequate - as dating from before the Second World War. But it goes much further back than that. In the 18th century almost any sort of contemptible man was a "sad dog". George III, who confided to Fanny Burney that much of Shakespeare was "sad stuff, what, what?" ("Only one must not say so"), was plainly bored by the comedies as much as by the tragedies. I once thought that the sad of Shakespeare's "sad cypress" in Twelfth Night ("... and in sad cypress let me be laid") was a transferred epithet, arguing that it must have been the singer, not the cypress, that was sad; but it was also about the wood of the coffin, because sad could mean dark, as well as heavy, also serious, like Malory's earnest, sad-countenanced knights, who delivered sad blows to their enemies.

The etymologists say it was a corruption of sated, as of people who were weary, or, as we might say, had "had enough". I suppose this fits the Princess. But it doesn't quite explain how it could once have meant "serious" as well.