Press complaint, bold type
An Irishman’s Diary about the evolution of words
‘While he was at it, my e-mailer also invited comment on what he thinks is the uniquely – or at least characteristically – Irish use of the word “press”, to mean “cupboard”. But even apart from being a noun, this is in a different category to the words already mentioned, because standard English dictionaries do acknowledge the Irish meaning.’ Photograph: Getty Images
On foot of yesterday’s column, a reader who wishes to remain anonymous (he cites a combination of shyness and the fact that he’s e-mailing from his work computer) has invited me to comment on the Irish use of the adjective “bold”.
As he points out, in other anglophone countries, most notably England, being bold is a good thing. But in Ireland, typically, the word is applied to misbehaving children. Adults sending personal e-mails from work computers might qualify too.
The Irish “bold” is indeed a curious phenomenon, because the word has a double life here. We still sometimes deploy it in the original sense: usually of people in politics or business, who make “bold moves” or take “bold gambles”.
These are usually considered praiseworthy, albeit sometimes of the sort of praise that Sir Humphrey would given Jim Hacker when trying to frighten sense into him.
But you could probably write a thesis, never mind a newspaper column, on how the Irish “bold” evolved from a term of encouragement into the national adjective for admonishment of unruly children.
Indeed, if any PhD students out there want to have a go at this, I suggest starting with the “Bold Fenian Men”, and from there tracing the adjective’s decline – probably blaming “post-colonialism” – before concluding that until Irish parents stop using it to discourage risk-taking in children, Ireland will never have an entrepreneurial culture.
Getting back to my e-mailer who wishes to be unnamed, meanwhile, he also mentions the term “naughty”, which in England serves the same child-rebuking role as our bold, but is contrastingly unpopular here.
In fact, that word too has a double life, thanks to British tabloid newspapers, in which it’s shorthand for all sexual activity between consenting adults. And this too is interesting, if only as an example of how words lose power over time.
As Shakespearians among you will know, there is a scene in King Lear where the Duke of Gloucester calls Regan a “Naughty Lady”. This, filtered through modern tabloidese, might imply that she had flashed her underwear at him, and that he was encouraging an encore.
Whereas, in fact, she is torturing him at the time, and not in any enjoyable way. Naughty meant “evil” back then, and Gloucester’s comment comes between the part of the scene where he’s having his beard removed without anaesthetic and the part where he loses his eyes.
So maybe, compared with “naughty”, calling your children “bold” is not such a bad idea. At worst, it’s the lesser of two euphemisms for “evil”.
While he was at it, my e-mailer also invited comment on what he thinks is the uniquely – or at least characteristically – Irish use of the word “press”, to mean “cupboard”. But even apart from being a noun, this is in a different category to the words already mentioned, because standard English dictionaries do acknowledge the Irish meaning.
My OED lists it at No 6 in its definitions of “press”, viz: “Large usu. shelved cupboard for clothes, books, etc, especially in recess in wall”. As such, it’s just more widely used here than elsewhere.
Speaking of which – and this must have been the effect of thinking about the Duke of Gloucester – the subject of presses reminds me of a slightly disturbing memory from 40 years ago, when I was in primary school.
At the risk of revealing myself a victim of Stockholm syndrome, I have to say that it didn’t seem nearly as bad then as it does now. Be that as it may, the wall of our classroom used to have a series of presses: shelved, recessed cupboards, as in the dictionary.
These were presumably for storing books. But for a time, we had a religious brother teaching us who thought they could also be useful for storing bold children. In fairness, it was only for short periods, and he never locked the doors; although I don’t think he could have, because small as were, the presses weren’t quite big enough.
In fact, other pupils had to hold the doors closed on the detainee. Yet, as I say, it just seemed like a bit of fun then. And it was fun, so long as you weren’t claustrophobic. Maybe I need to go back into therapy now.
It’s odd that, among the multiple definitions of the noun “press”, the one meaning “the media” has become dominant, even though it’s an indirect derivation. And it’s also odd that my memories of primary-school child discipline have an echo today in the fear, common to many, of media exposure.
My correspondent who wishes to remain unnamed may be an example. But he can relax: I never reveal sources, even under torture. Whatever happens, he won’t end up in the press.