In the news: two new words we learned this week (and one is especially horrid)

The Right Honourable Boris Johnson

We’re going to focus on just two news stories this past week, both of which gave us a lesson in English vocabulary that we really didn’t need. We were introduced, respectively, to a vulgar slang word and an old derogatory term for unmarried women. The first lesson was taught to us by a Right Honourable former Member of Parliament – who has served, incidentally, as Mayor of London and Foreign Secretary, and who (I believe) still has his eye on the Big Job in Britain – during a radio interview. The other was given to us in a very dubious tweet — but not (somewhat surprisingly) from the great orange Tweeter himself. …

On Sunday, in the paper’s “Shifting Patterns of English” series, Observer columnist  Jonathan Bouquet wrote: “What on earth is going on with Boris Johnson? He was urged to apologise to victims of child abuse after claiming millions of pounds of police funding was being ‘spaffed up the wall’ investigating historical allegations. The former foreign secretary suggested that ‘an awful lot of police time’ was being spent looking at ‘historic offences and all this malarkey’. ‘Malarkey’? ‘Spaffed’? What sort of language is that in the context of such offences?” As the Independent‘s Simon Kelner added: “I am not easily shocked, but Boris Johnson’s ‘spaffed’ comment about child abuse was morally repugnant. In plummy Etonian tones, the word ‘spaffed’ sounds almost comical, with a hint of jolliness. Look it up and you will see how awful it is.” Interestingly, neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor the more “contemporary” Oxford Living Dictionaries lists or defines this English slang word: you’ll only find it on Urban Dictionary or Wiktionary, with no references to its origins or history.

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In the second piece of news that served as a lesson in vocabulary, the Daily Mail screamed in its headline last Friday: “Internet goes wild for old-fashioned term for unmarried women over 26 – and it’s NOT ‘spinster’!” Here’s the tweet that went viral, and taught us all yet another derogatory word to help make vulnerable young women feel even worse about themselves: “Omg I just found out that spinster used to be reserved for women 23-26 and that after you turned 26 if you were unmarried you became a… THORNBACK. How f*****g great is that name!?'”

Sigh.

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