Mind your language

Collins dictionary has got ‘gammon’ all wrong

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

In the annual dictionary wars to nominate words of the year, in the hope of attracting publicity, Collins has made single-use its first choice for 2018. But of more interest is its second choice: gammon. It is used by Twitter trolls and other supporters of Momentum to signify ‘a male, middle-aged and white, with reactionary views, especially one who supports Brexit’. His face resembles ham.

Collins said that in Nicholas Nickleby (1838), ‘Dickens used the word gammon to describe a large, self-satisfied, middle-aged man who professes an extreme patriotism in large part to disguise his essential selfishness and corruption’.

I’m afraid the people at the dictionary have completely misunderstood what they read. I suspect they picked this up from a piece by Jonn Elledge in the New Statesman in May, later publicised by the Guido Fawkes blog.

In Nicholas Nickleby, Mr Gregsbury is a pompous MP with ‘a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them’. At a meeting with constituents, one calls out from the back that Gregsbury’s remarks ‘savoured rather too much of a “gammon” tendency’.

‘The meaning of that term – gammon,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I am proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.’

Dickens didn’t mean that Mr Gregsbury was a gammon or looked like one. He meant he spoke gammon – rubbish or cant, a meaning in use since the 18th century. It developed from gammon meaning an accomplice who distracts the victim of a crime, such as one who ‘jostles up to a Man, while another picks his Pocket’ (1718).

Gammon and patter meant criminal or similar jargon. Gammon and spinach meant nonsense, as in the nursery rhyme collected in 1807: ‘With a rowly powly, Gammon and spinnage, O heigh, said Anthony Rowly.’ So, to the claim that in 1838 gammon meant ‘a pompous reactionary male’, I say: ‘That’s all gammon.’

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