I despair. Despite my earnest dislike of soccer and everything to do with it, this is the third week running in which my selected word derives from the World Cup. It started when Alan Clark, the rich and maverick Conservative MP for the London constituency of Kensington and Chelsea, said on the BBC Today programme last week that the rioting England fans in Marseilles were victims of prejudice by French police and rival supporters. This provoked the Football Supporters Association into accusing Mr Clark of pandering to the yobs in Marseilles.
It’s one of the penalties of being interested in the history of words that on occasion one laughs in the wrong places. People use the verb pander quite frequently in Britain but rarely if at all in the sense of “pimp” which it has had for much of its 400 years. However, that sense does survive in the US legal term pandering. When Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam”, was charged with that offence in Los Angeles in 1993, British newspapers either had to explain what the charge was or else translate it into the British equivalent of procuring. So little was that meaning known in this country that even the normally cosmopolitan Economist described it as a “bizarre name” for the offence.
As elsewhere, the verb survives mainly in the figurative sense of ministering to someone’s baser instincts. For example, this appeared in a book review in the Independent on Sunday last weekend: “Such claims simply pander to European prejudices about inferior African rationality”. This is the sense (I would hope) that the Football Supporters Association had in mind. It’s an example of the innate conservatism of dictionaries that the verb is given in most of mine with the old strong sense first. The noun pander is there too, a word which is effectively obsolete in Britain in any sense; the more usual noun is panderer, but only in the weaker sense it shares with the verb.
It’s one of life’s less notable coincidences that, like last week’s hooligan, the origin of the word lies in a proper name. Pandarus appears in the medieval story of Troilus and Cressida, of which we have versions by Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare, in which he persuades Cressida to become the lover of Troilus. At the end of Act 3, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s version of the play, he has Pandarus say: “Since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name — call them all Pandars”.
This sounds like a brilliant bit of prediction, but Shakespeare, writing about 1602, was actually betting on a certainty, because the word had been known in just that sense for about the previous 70 years. In fact, he’d used it himself in the very last scene of the Merry Wives of Windsor back in 1598: “Marry, sir, we’ll bring you to Windsor, to one Master Brook, that you have cozen’d of money, to whom you should have been a pander”.
He would have been on surer ground as a seer and prophet had he instead predicted that the spelling would eventually settle down at pander, that the noun would also start to be used as a verb, and that both would go through a period of being pretty exactly equivalent to “pimp” before shifting largely to their modern figurative senses.
Pandar probably converted to the spelling pander because people thought the unstressed ending was actually an agent noun, like writer or farmer, formed from a verb by adding the -er ending. That might have implied the existence of a verb pand by a process that linguists call backformation, but the verb form of pander appeared early enough to stop that happening. Panderer was created by speakers in the early nineteenth century who made a new agent noun from the verb, something only possible once the old one had become less common.
So comparatively little performed or read are the sources these days that we hardly remember uncle Pandarus, or how he gave a word to the language.
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