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Good egg

A phone call came from the BBC mid-week, asking about an item I’d written on nitty-gritty. The day before, John Denham, the minister at the Home Office responsible for the police, had been attending a conference of the Police Federation of England and Wales. He used nitty-gritty in his speech. The Guardian reported that he had been told by conference members that it was one of a number of terms police forces have been told not to use, in this case because of its supposed links with the slave trade (though there are none).

What caused my eyebrows to move rapidly ceiling-wards was that the same report claimed conference members had told the minister that the police were also instructed not to use the phrase good egg, because it was too closely linked with egg and spoon, rhyming slang for coon, an offensive racial slur.

While sensitivity over language is not inherently bad, sometimes political correctness passes from needful consideration into a parallel world of misunderstanding and mealy-mouthedness. These days, it seems even PCs have to be PC. The chances of a British policeman using the phrase good egg in conversation with a member of the public is roughly the same as his pursuing an outfangthief or enforcing the rules on the right to turbary.

That’s because the phrase is an excellent example of dated slang — still to be found, but only as a self-conscious archaism that reeks of a kind of old-fashioned, class-ridden Britishness that is long extinct. It first appeared about 1900 as slang of the public school and university for somebody pleasant, agreeable, or trustworthy (and also as “an exclamation of enthusiastic approbation”, as the big Oxford English Dictionary puts it).

If you associate it with the late P G Wodehouse, that’s because he did much to popularise it, having presumably picked it up during his school days at Dulwich in the last years of the nineteenth century. He seems to have used it first in Something Fresh in 1915: “‘She isn’t going to sue me for breach?‘ ‘She never had any intention of doing so.’ The Hon. Frederick sank back on the pillows. ‘Good egg!’ he said with fervour.” But Wodehouse was pipped to the post in the literary immortality stakes by Rudyard Kipling, in his book Traffics and Discoveries of 1904.

Good egg was at first just a humorous inversion of bad egg, which is also public-school slang, but from half a century previously. A bad egg was as thoroughly nasty a person as the literal bad egg was unpleasant to encounter.

The matter became more convoluted the following morning, when John Denham wrote to the Guardian saying that he had checked most carefully and had established that there was no list of banned words in the police force. The Guardian report hadn’t said there was, but that officers could face a charge of breaching the codes on tolerance if anyone complained, a more subtle form of control that requires officers to self-censor every word (and yet still leaves them open to frivolous or malicious complaints).

Amid confusion and denials, the main loser here seems to be the English language.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 25 May 2002