22 MAY 1993, Page 11

Mind your language

PEJORATIVE words come in all colours, and change them just as easily. Just as Tory was once a term of abuse, so now critics of the Prime Minister are called snobs.

This word has done a somersault. Its original meaning was shoemaker, but even the etymology of that is unknown. In the early 19th century it came to mean one having no pretensions to gen- tility; by the time Thackeray caught up with it in his Book of Snobs, it had tacked about to mean someone who did have pretensions to gentility. That is as far as the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary takes us.

But then, in this century, snobs stopped looking up enviously to their superiors and started looking down on their inferiors. The second edition of the OED gives its first citation in this meaning from 1911 in Shaw's Getting Married; by the time of Scott Fitzgerald in the Twenties this sense was firmly established.

Sir Norman Fowler's criticism of Lord Rees-Mogg owed more to Fitzgerald than to Thackeray; certainly there was no idea of cobbling in his mind. I won- der if he has heard of the saying: Ne supra crepidam sutor judicaret.

Dot Wordsworth