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A headline on Sky News read “Iron Lady’s bag to go under hammer”, which would be a puzzling reference for anybody unversed in the oddities of English idiom or British politics of the 1980s.

The report stated that former prime minister Baroness Thatcher is auctioning for charity her famous Asprey handbag, which she carried to meetings with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev as well as to cabinet. It became so central an image of her notoriously tough approach equally to political opponents and to recalcitrant members of the government (hence the epithet Iron Lady) that it led to many sexist comments, such as that Margaret Thatcher used to keep order among her ministers by hitting them with her handbag. Such jokes led to a sexist figurative verb entering the language: to handbag:

The Foreign Office told her she could not get “our money” back from the Common Market. Mrs Thatcher handbagged her way through an EEC summit in Dublin and won us rebates.

The Times, 13 Jun. 1988.

A mark of its influence is that it is still in the language in the UK and Commonwealth countries, though a high proportion of references allude to Mrs Thatcher. A play at the Tricycle Theatre in London in 2010 about the relationship between her and the Queen was entitled Handbagged. One of the annual awards by the British magazine The Oldie is Handbagger of the Year — in 2010, it went to the crime novelist P D James for severely criticising the Director General of the BBC in a radio interview. But by no means all instances are about her — this is from a Reuters tennis report of 20 January 2011: “The highlight came afterwards when the third seed handbagged the courtside interviewer over a text message that he had sent to another player.”

As this last example shows, its main constituency these days is sport. It often implies that those involved — male or female — have overreacted to some insult or dispute in a camp or effeminate way.

Several set expressions with derisory intent have become popular, presumably from this sense of the verb, though variations on them may have been around in the gay community before Mrs Thatcher’s time in office. They include handbag situation, handbags at five/ten/twenty/fifty paces and handbags at dawn.

Sturrock fumed: “For both sides to finish with nine players was ridiculous. The initial sending off of Ifil and Walker was no more than handbags at dawn. From what I could see of it, they were doing no more than holding each other’s shirts, with Ifil on the ground.”

Sporting Life, 21 Mar. 2011.

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Page created 07 May 2011