Sunday, 12 June 2011

contemplating contempt

The English language has a number of informal words for members of specific social groups that are almost never used by such members to describe themselves, largely because these words have negative connotations and are used by people outside the group to disparage the group as a whole and by association any individual member of that group.

A typical example is the word ‘toff’ to denote a member of the upper classes in Britain. It is used by left-wing activists to label people like the current British prime minister, David Cameron, as if his social background, including his having attended the most well-known public school in England, somehow disqualifies him from the office.

On the other side of the coin, many of those who have attended such schools are liable to refer to members of the lower classes as ‘oiks’. This is intentionally insulting, in the same way that labelling David Cameron a ‘toff’ is intentionally insulting.

A similar word from the United States is ‘redneck’, originally a derogatory term for a poor white farmer from Appalachia but now used to refer to anyone with socially conservative views, someone who is in favour of the death penalty, who opposes abortion and who calls for the reintroduction of corporal punishment. Rednecks also tend to regard other ethnic groups as inferior, an attitude that is often found in but may not necessarily be typical of an oik.

What these words have in common is that they are all stereotypes. and perhaps the most stereotypical term of all is ‘boffin’. Scientists and what they do are often misunderstood by non-scientists, so it becomes routine for non-scientists to label someone a ‘boffin’ whose inventions, discoveries and pronouncements are far too arcane to be understood unless one is a member of the cabal. Curiously, the only time the word ‘scientist’ is ever used, it is invariably prefaced by the word ‘mad’, a sure sign that prejudice is at work.

The most egregious of these terms is probably ‘squaddie’ to describe a private soldier in the British army. To anyone likely to use a word like ‘oik’, such men are probably seen as oiks in uniform, but it is not their fault that most army privates have had no more than a basic education. Even though I was less than impressed with some of their public behaviour in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony (for a start, many appeared to regard the local Chinese as unsophisticated coolies, and they had no time for Chinese culture), I would not wish to belittle their courage and dedication in Afghanistan by referring to them as ‘squaddies’. While concerned intellectuals argue over the practical and moral justification for the presence of the British army in that country from the comfort of a television studio in London or a public house in the English countryside, these men face lethal danger and extreme discomfort, with little or no respite, simply because they have been ordered, by ‘toffs’, to do so. It is fatally easy to be contemptuous of those who do our dirty work and allow us to keep our hands clean, but these men deserve our respect; these men are soldiers.


  1. Great post, Dennis. I love to discover the etymology of unusual words. Actually, I love to 'read' the dictionary! Some of these words I'm familiar with (e.g. 'toff' and 'redneck') but not with the others.

  2. I’m a dictionary reader too Diane. I start by looking up a word, but then my attention is distracted by an interesting definition of some other word, and before I know it I’ve forgotten what I was supposed to be looking up.

  3. I want to be part of one of the Good Groups. Problem is that whenever I think I've found one that will let me in, someone tells me how bad that group really is. I'm beginning to think that I am condemned to be a loner. Any suggestions?

  4. You’re asking a loner for advice on how not to be a loner? Sorry Bruce, can’t help.

  5. Hi Dennis, an interesting take. I go along with your interpretation of oik, toff and redneck as being derogatory terms.

    I would say that boffin and squaddy are not meant to be derogatory.

    Just my view on it.



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