Mind your language

Has Boris Johnson really ‘trashed’ parliament’s reputation?

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

13 November 2021

9:00 AM

‘When they posted the closing-night notice for his first Broadway play, Comes a Day, he went into a drunken rage, threw his fist through a glass window and played the last act bleeding into a rubber glove before being forced into a hospital where he required 22 stitches.’ So said the New York Times in a profile of George C. Scott in 1970, 12 years after the event. Scott’s infatuation with alcohol saw him through five marriages. My husband admires his screen performances, naturally.

In another profile of the actor, in 1971, the Times in London said of the incident: ‘Backstage at Comes a Day he got drunk and trashed his dressing room.’ It was among the first times that trash had been used like that in England. In this sense it was from the first an Americanism. Once, though (in the 18th century), to trash had meant to ‘rid of trash’, something done to sugar cane.

Last weekend Sir John Major accused the present government on the radio of ‘trashing the reputation of parliament’. (Reuters reported that it was ‘his party’ that had been doing the trashing, but he definitely said it was the government.) The next day Sir Keir Starmer said the reputation of the country for democracy was being ‘trashed’ by the Prime Minister.

In September, the Financial Times reported that in his speech at the Labour party conference, Sir Keir had ‘trashed the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn’. Yet when he launched his campaign last year to be Labour leader, Sir Keir said: ‘We are not going to trash the last Labour government, but nor are we going to trash the last four years.’

It strikes me that the strength of trash is diminishing. It often seems to mean little more than ‘criticise’. In July the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, in an interview she was conducting, responded to a remark by Dominic Cummings about power in No. 10, by saying: ‘You could be making all those arguments without trying to trash the reputation of other ministers, without being so personal.’

‘Good name in man and woman,’ we read in Othello, ‘Is the immediate jewel of their souls./ Who steals my purse steals trash.’ But who said that? The reputation-trashing Iago.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments