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Thatcher's Linguistic Legacy

The death of the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher led to a vast outpouring of discussion on her legacy. When she entered Downing Street in 1979, she quoted St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”. Obituaries, no matter how reverent, have had to admit that she was on the contrary a hugely disharmonious leader and remains as divisive in death as in life. The language used about her illustrates that.

It began well before she became PM. The chant Thatcher, Thatcher: milk snatcher dates from 1972 when, as education minister, she stopped free school milk for the over-sevens. It is still remembered — in 2012 the health minister Anne Milton cut a subsidy to childcare centres for free milk to the under-fives and The Mirror headed its report “the return of the milk snatcher”. In January 1976, a year after she became leader of the Conservative Party, the Soviet army magazine Red Star accused her of trying to revive the Cold War, calling her the Iron Lady. The writer probably had in mind the nineteenth-century German Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck rather than the British Iron Duke, the first Duke of Wellington. But she swooped gratefully on the title and is still known by it (a graffito in West Belfast the day after her death read “Iron Lady, Rust in Peace”). The obvious shorthand Thatcherite for a supporter of her policies dates from April 1976, less than a year after she became party leader, and Thatcherism from just a year later. The journalist Philip Howard predicted in his A Word in Time in 1990 that Thatcherite would be meaningless to the next generation, but the policies of the current Conservative-led coalition, presided over by a prime minister, David Cameron, who admires her, mean that the term is as alive as ever. In a interview shortly before the funeral, he declared, “We are all Thatcherites now.”

But then most of the politicians currently in power are Thatcher’s children, of an age that Margaret Thatcher’s policies and outlook were formative influences. That term was coined in 1986 but remains sufficiently evocative that it was used in a headline over a story in The Independent on 9 April about her enduring influence. The related Thatcher’s Britain is older, from the beginning of her premiership; it had a renewed burst of popularity when the coalition came into power in 2010 (the Daily Telegraph headlined a report in December that year “Thatcher’s Britain returns 20 years after she fell”, and Jonathan Freedland commented in the Guardian the day after she died that “the country we live in remains Thatcher’s Britain”). Thatcher’s girls briefly appeared around 1985 to mean prostitutes, applied — so it was asserted — because her policies had driven many women to the only way left for them to earn money.

Few leaders have been graced with so many epithets. She was often referred to as Maggie, sometimes with a tinge of misogyny by opponents but with affection by supporters. (The pound coin was briefly nicknamed a Maggie after she employed the royal we in her announcement of 1989 that “We have become a grandmother”, which led to wits saying the coin was “blond, brassy and thinks it’s a sovereign”.) Maggie is still around and was used by The Sun in a headline about her funeral. Other terms were definitely deprecating, such as Grocer’s Daughter (she was one, though that snobbish putdown hardly suited an Oxford University science graduate and qualified barrister; in part it echoed the nickname of her Conservative predecessor, Edward Heath, who was The Grocer).

Her famous handbag became an icon, the subject of much drollery. The Economist wrote in 1982, “One of her less reverent backbenchers said of Mrs Thatcher recently that ‘she can’t look at a British institution without hitting it with her handbag’.” Those most likely to be handbagged she described as wets. She used it in a way that had been around since the early twentieth century for a person who in British slang was soppy or a drip — ineffectual, inept or effete — but she implied that her targets wanted to take the easy option or lacked intellectual or political fortitude. She used it for the members of her cabinet who held liberal or middle-of-the-road views on controversial issues such as monetary policy, though The Times wrote in 1980 that a wet “seems to be anybody who crosses the Prime Minister in fashioning a particular policy”. It became a badge of honour for her opponents, meaning left-leaning, liberal or anti-ideological. The opposite of wet was sometimes dry, especially in the press, but her preferred term was sound, meaning both loyal to her and having a similar view of policy, in another of her phrases one of us.

She also popularised frit. During Prime Minister’s Questions in 1983, she rounded on Denis Healey, then deputy leader of the Labour Party, “The Right Honourable gentleman is afraid of an election, is he? Afraid? Frightened? Frit?” Frit is a dialectal and colloquial form of frighten, which she must have learned in her Lincolnshire childhood.

One prominent wet, Norman St John Stevas, whom she sacked in 1981, renamed her Tina, from a phrase that she often repeated to force home her policies, “there is no alternative”. St John Stevas also coined leaderene, Attila the Hen and the blessed Margaret. Despite his sacking he used them in a spirit of ironic appreciation rather than deprecation. Leaderene became quite popular, as affectionately within the party as disapproving outside it.

Her main linguistic failing was her inability to appreciate or even understand jokes and wordplay. In a reference to Moses at the 1977 Conservative Party conference she wanted to change a catchphrase of the 1970s Morecambe and Wise TV show, “keep taking the tablets” to “keep taking the pills”. It was hard to persuade her to include her famous line at the 1980 conference, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want, the lady’s not for turning’.” Even after her scriptwriter, the playwright Sir Ronald Millar, patiently explained it was a pun on the title of Christopher Fry’s play The Lady’s Not for Burning, she still didn’t get it. At a farewell dinner in 1991 for her staunchest supporter and wisest guide, William Whitelaw, she raised titters in the company with her innocent and unintended pun on a British slang term for the penis when she said of him, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”

My thanks go to Anthony Massey for his assistance.

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Page created 20 Apr 2013