words: Valet

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Valet IT WAS the French who, in the 15th or 16th century, gave us valet, sometimes spelt varlet. In those days they meant the same, a personal servant. But soon varlet became also a term of abuse, so that a varlet was a low fellow, along with rogues and peasant slaves. The Prince of Wales's man Stronach, suspended for betraying his master to the News of the World, seems to have fitted both definitions.

Why varlets got a bad name, while valets kept theirs unsullied, is one of those mysteries, but expressions such as "thou scurvy valet" just don't appear much in our literature. A valet was a trusty. Samuel and Sarah Adams, whose Complete Servant first came out in 1825, advised: "As the valet is much about his master's person, and has the opportunity of hearing his off-at-hand opinions on many subjects, he should endeavour to have as short a memory as possible ... and he should be very cautious about mischief-making or tale-bearing." Fictional valets at any rate tend to observe this rule. I don't think Jeeves ever lets Bertie down in the Junior Ganymede Club.

In real life, valeting is now for most people a sadly impersonal business. It is more likely to make us think of car upholstery cleaning kits, or, in the States, of the person who parks your car for you, than of the confidential valet de chambre. The wo r d gives a bit of class to a commercial transaction, that is all. It has come down in the world at last.

Snobbery prevails, meanwhile, in the way we pronounce it. Valet was once often spelt "vallit" and pronounced accordingly; the OED quotes a bit of late-17th-century doggerel rhyming it with "forget". Some 150 years later Richard Barham in the Ingoldsby Legends rhymed it with "Sally". I think the snobs started calling it "vallay" at the Restoration, when French terms were the mode. By 1900 this was thought vulgar and "vallit" was winning again, but now "vallay" has fought its way back - rather against therecent trend, incidentally, in favour of such anglicisms as "nitch" and "garridge".