Mind your language

‘Sorted’ has always had connotations of menace

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

My heart leapt up on Newport station, an unusual place for that to happen, when I heard a recorded announcement: ‘Wedi sylwi. Wedi sôn. Wedi setlo.’

It was a pleasure to hear it in an ancient language after so often having been annoyed by the English equivalent from the British Transport Police: ‘See it. Say it. Sorted.’ To make matters worse, one of the accompanying posters, the Jewish Chronicle reported, showed ‘a suspicious-looking man with dark hair, long beard and a hooked nose’.

Even when the Nazi reminders had been sorted out, the word sorted remained unpopular. It is a verb used by threatening figures in EastEnders: ‘Sort it.’ It belongs to the same world as ‘Shut it’.


The sorted disease has now been caught by The Archers. In Sunday’s omnibus there were at least five instances, from Joe Grundy, Will, Toby and Pip (who wanted to ‘sort it myself’). Only Jennifer, who I half remember has a degree in English, held out with the traditional sorted out.

I cannot deny that, through the centuries, sort has conveyed quite similar meanings to the one we dislike. The OED lists 19 different senses for the verb. Ours is No 16a, subsection e. The illustrative quotations are from the 20th century, including one from Malcolm Bradbury’s History Man (1975): ‘Tomorrow will sort itself, Barbara,’ says Felicity, ‘you’ll manage.’ The surrounding landscape is all northern English, principally Scottish. In Old Mortality (1816), Scott wrote:
‘ “Ye may rely on your naig [nag] being weel sorted,” said Cuddie.’

The EastEnderish connotations of violence also appear in the late-20th century. ‘Let’s all go down and sort out that peace pickets’ camp,’ Pat Arrowsmith had someone say in her novel Jericho (1965). But a similar meaning had already developed in Scotland. ‘Bid them bring up the prisoner — I trow I will sort him,’ says a character in Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815).

The extended family of sort descends from the Latin sortiri, ‘divide by lot’. From the Renaissance onwards, a common practice kind of sortilege, or foretelling by lot, was to open Virgil, Homer or the Bible at random. These sortes Virgilianae and their variants were, I suppose, one sort of seeing, saying and sorting.

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