Words: Stalkers

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The Independent Online
IT looks as though "stalking" will soon become a legal term. At the moment, harassing women from a distance is not an offence, but if Janet Anderson's Stalking Bill goes through, we shall at last have a precise definition for a word which for several hundred years has been ambiguous to say the least.

It's not the crime itself that's vague; we are clear enough about what Mrs Anderson wants. But ask anyone what image stalking brings to mind and you could get a variety of answers. Some will speak of a tall and stately walk, as practised by, say, the late King Haakon VII of Norway, a monarch whose height gave him instant dignity; or by Hamlet's spectral father terrifying the night watch on the Elsinore battlements. Others will envisage a tweed-clad figure on knees and elbows in the heather. Ghosts and kings, sportsmen and sex maniacs all, in their different ways, stalk.

The OED surprised me by suggesting that stalk, in Hamlet's sense, might be the same word as the noun meaning the stem of a plant. Walter Skeat, the great Victorian etymologist, went further. "The notion is that of walking on stalks or lengthened legs," he wrote, "ie on tiptoe and cautiously, lifting the feet high", and he gave two definitions: "to walk warily" (the medieval meaning) and the later "to stride". Both fit neatly with his etymological explanation, rather too neatly in fact, for the two meanings plainly have different origins. Stalking (as Skeat knew) meant creeping stealthily long before it meant striding haughtily - and a good 300 years before the stem of a plant was ever called a stalk.

The transitive verb - stalking someone or something - doesn't show up in the dictionaries till the 19th century. Mrs Anderson's particular sort of stalker is only just beginning to appear. Sportsmen may have to think of another name for themselves.

Nicholas Bagnall