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Pronounced /bɒs/Help with pronunciation

While casually listening to the Conservative Party annual conference from Blackpool, as one does, I heard William Hague, the new leader of the party, charge the Labour government with bossiness.

It is not the first time that the new government has been accused of wanting to grasp all power to itself, a criticism that is frequently expressed by the word authoritarianism, which is a fine mouth-twisting academic word to throw at one’s opponent, though scarcely one in daily use. So it is not surprising that Mr Hague should seek a more demotic alternative to use in his speech.

But boss and its derivatives can be mildly jocular in British English, a quality which is apparently absent in, say, Australian or US English. If a worker says “Yes, boss!” to their manager in a British context, they’re being facetious, since nobody would really call their boss “boss” to his face (though it’s an extremely common term otherwise).

In most varieties of English, the compounds bossy and bossiness have a sense of a person who is officious or dictatorial, though with a nursery feel that is reminiscent of Violet Elizabeth Bott. The related slang phrase bossy boots for someone who throws their weight around encapsulates this sense of behaviour that is immature. So Mr Hague’s criticism goes deeper than just accusing the government of exerting its authority with unnecessary vigour: he is adding a undertone of childish petulance to it.

This is a long way from the original meaning of boss, which came into the language in North America from the Dutch baas, “master”, which was taken there by Dutch settlers in the 1650s (and which also turns up in South African English, derived from Afrikaans). It gained acceptance in the US as a useful alternative to master, which would have been the standard English term of the period but which settlers escaping the Old World understandably disliked because of its connotations of subservience. For many years it was a slangy usage, I’d guess more common in speech than in writing. In the 1830s James Fenimore Cooper condemned it as a barbaric vulgarity; this denunciation had no effect and it settled in as a permanent part of the language. It came back across the Atlantic to Britain sometime about the middle of last century to join the much older and unconnected sense of boss, “protuberance”, which we borrowed from the French about six centuries earlier. Neither has any link with boss-eyed or boss shot, two other nineteenth-century introductions, which seem to have their origin in a dialect word meaning “bungle”.

It is extremely unlikely that Mr Hague is intending the slang sense of boss that has become common among young English-speaking people recently, and which means “excellent, first-rate, superlative” (it started in the US at least as far back as the sixties, though some writers argue it’s a nineteenth-century formation, too). So far as I know he was also not using the word with the US Tammany Hall connotation of “a political leader with a corrupt following”, which would be bare-faced cheek if he did in view of his own party’s recent record.

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Page created 11 Oct 1997