The scandalous Ms. Jodelka

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Filipa Jodelka, "The Scandalous Lady W: a disturbing tale of sex and sensibility", The Guardian 8/17/2015:

When looking for evidence of the death of love, it’s normal to wheel out divorce stats, but the BBC’s newest period extravaganza tells a different story. A look at the nasty business between Lady Seymour Worsley, her lover George Bisset and her politician husband Sir Richard Worsley, an affair that culminated in a criminal trial in 1782, The Scandalous Lady W (Monday, 9pm, BBC2) is perhaps the biggest advert not only for divorce but radical, militarised feminism and premarital sex, too.

So far, so normal — but the body of this review is sprinkled with breezy hip UK slang, in a sort of new-media style:

. . . Lady W . . . might have been spared a lot of pissing about had she been granted a cheeky little dec abs […]

“My mother did not tell me that playing rantum scantum would be thus,” ponders innocent and deeply frustrated Lady W. […] 

“What a bloody frigging total a-hole,” sings my heart as someone in a ruff plots a beheading. […]

We bounce from Bisset and Seymour’s increasingly happy shagging to Worsley, the willing cuck, watching on and, finally, the trial that Worsley brings against Bisset.

It’s tricky stuff. Seymour ends up finding love in a hopeless place but at the bidding of a grubby perv in a shit wig.  […]

With each witness, Seymour’s value to her husband decreases and therefore falls much lower than the £20k Worsley is suing Bisset for in the first place. And all over a reluctant carnal tally that, by any other name, is a decent bank holiday weekend in Zante.

Audiences watching all this would do well to act like Lady W: take a deep breath and firm it. As she puts it in happier times: “It’s strange but not unpleasant.

Some of the Guardian's readers are suitably scandalized, as you can see in the comments section:

Another commenter asks "Is this what Twitter will do to journalism?"

I'll note only that the stylistic level of usage peeves has declined since Richard Grant White complained about "those intruders in language …which … affront the eye, torment the year, and assault the common sense of the speaker of plain and idiomatic English".

[h/t Rob Wilson]



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 9:04 am

    If the style of peeving has declined, what about the style of newspaper reviews?

    The line about "playing rantum scantum" is apparently a quotation from the show, using a genuine obsolete term for sex.

    And why the minced "frigging" and "a-hole" but the unminced "shit"?

  2. Vanya said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 9:54 am

    I don't consider "frigging" or "a-hole" to be minced. They are different words with slightly different connotations. A "fucking asshole" is someone I have a personal grudge against. A "frigging a-hole" is a more appropriate epithet for an unpleasant fictional character I am watching on television.

  3. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 11:56 am

    I don't know if LL has ever done a post on this aspect of expletive syntax, but does "“What a bloody frigging total a-hole" read strangely to anyone else?

    If it were only one of them, I'd strongly prefer "total frigging/bloody a-hole" to "frigging/bloody total a-hole".

  4. Guy said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    @Ginger Yellow

    The Cambridge Grammar of the English language gives the order evaluative>general property>age>color>provenance>manufacture>type as the default order of "residual" internal pre-head modifiers in noun phrase structure. ("Residual" is defined to exclude exclude superlatives, determinatives used as modifiers, ordinals, and "primacy" modifiers) it gives the example "an attractive tight-fitting brand-new pink Italian lycra womens' swimsuit". It doesn't mention placement of expletives in that section, but my intuition puts "friggin'" after age but before color: "an old friggin' house" "a friggin' blue sweater", although it would semantically seem more like an evaluative.

  5. Guy said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

    Though it's tricky because friggin' can act as a modifier, as well as interrupt noun phrases, "congratu-friggin-lations", so maybe its "default" position can vary depending on how it's being used. I'm not sure exactly what CGEL means by primacy, but it gives "key" in the sense of "most important" as an example, so I think it means "semantically like a superlative". "Total" would seem to be similar to superlatives in that it has a prominent semantic "scope": "a tall total expert" would be someone who is both tall and totally an expert, whereas a "total tall expert" would be someone who is totally a "tall expert", although that's semantically odd because we don't think of "tall expert" as being a natural kind with core exemplars. Whether "friggin'" falls within or without the scope of "total" is not very semantically distinct, so it should naturally come after "total", I think, though of course I wouldn't be surprised to see that there is a lot of dialectal/idiolectal variation here.

  6. Guy said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

    Sorry, I meant to say "act as a modifier to an adjective". That possibility makes it tricky to diagnose its natural position because you have to make sure context excludes the interpretation where it is a degree modifier of the following adjective.

  7. Jonathan said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 4:16 pm

    I'll bite — what does "dec abs" mean? Decadent abstraction? Decaying absinthe? I'm at a loss.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 4:57 pm

    Jonathan: Apparently it's a "decree absolute", the final divorce decree in British law.

  9. Rob said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    My guess, and it is a guess, is dec abs = decree absolute

  10. TonyK said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

    @Jonathan: I had to read the article to work it out, but "dec abs" is Ms Jodelka's idiosyncratic abbreviation for "decree absolute", i.e. a divorce.

  11. Jason said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 11:23 pm

    Now that somone has explained it, "Dec abs" has to be the least plausible urban slang since Burgess's "nadsar." This article is what happens when 40 year old guardian writers try to be hip….

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 11:37 pm

    Jason and TonyK: Indeed, no relevant Google hits on "a dec abs" or "the dec abs". (There are more irrelevant hits on "dec abs" than I wanted to look through.

    Vanya: So maybe Jodelka had stronger feelings about the wig than the character? I can see how that could be the explanation.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 18, 2015 @ 11:38 pm

    I see I'm missing a right parenthesis. :-)

  14. GH said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 7:08 am


    I don't consider "frigging" or "a-hole" to be minced. They are different words with slightly different connotations.

    Indeed, "frig" has its own separate meaning (to masturbate, oneself or another) and etymology (uncertain, but perhaps from frike or fridge: to rub, fidget; I would assume it's ultimately derived from or cognate to Latin fricāre, "to rub") that apparently predates its use as an alternative to "fuck."

    OED: My lovely Phil. well vers'd in the various manners of ffucking and ffrigging, as the Captain of the virtuosa's. (School of Love, 1708)

  15. Graeme said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 7:47 am

    25 years of law study and teaching in UK and Oz.
    I assumed 'dec abs' was sexy street slang for 'decent abdominal muscles'.

  16. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 19, 2015 @ 1:51 pm

    "Dec abs" is potentially non-cromulent because of the problem that one naturally wants to pronounce the first bit like "deck" but that's not how the first syllable of "decree" is pronounced. Or are there instances of clipping I'm not immediately thinking of where because of stress pattern in the original word the clipping causes a reduced vowel to be unreduced yet the clipped form is still understood?

    It strikes me as entirely plausible that UK divorce lawyers would have some sort of insider-jargon shorthand (a different genre than youth slang) for "decree absolute," but it sounds from some of the prior comments that if they do, "dec abs" isn't it.

  17. xtifr said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 1:23 am

    @J. W. Brewer: The "fi" in "sci fi" shows a fairly drastic change in pronunciation* from the original phrase, although it's not exactly a case of reduced to unreduced. Of course, "sci fi" was influenced by "hi fi", while "dec abs" has no similar excuse, but there is something vaguely resembling precedent.

    *This observation led some folks to offer the alternate pronunciation, "skiffy", which, in turn, became a humorous alternate spelling now found in various fan-related things, such as the name of a club at the University of Chicago, The Skiffy and Fanty Show blog, and at least one book, Alternate Skiffy, an anthology of stories about famous science fiction writers in alternate timelines.

  18. Brett said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 7:12 am

    @xtifr: The use of "sci fi" used to be incredibly* controversial among readers, writers, and editors or science fiction though. For a long time, "serious" people wanted to talk about "SF" instead. The introduction of the skiffy pronunciation was an attempt at reclamation of what had been considered (by some) a pejorative term. It never seemed to be really successful though, and I remember sitting an a dinner next to to acquaintances who were arguing over whether particular books counted as "skiffy."

    * I mean "incredibly" in the literal sense that I find myself basically unable to believe how seriously some people took this question of nomenclature.

  19. James W said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 9:04 am

    @Ginger Yellow 'Does “What a bloody frigging total a-hole" read strangely to anyone else?'

    I suspect a somewhat 'minced' allusion to the Martha Wainwright song ('sings my heart') "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole".

  20. Guy said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 10:45 am


    What was "hi fi"'s excuse?

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 1:52 pm

    I had not thought of sci-fi or hi-fi, which are interesting. I guess one could argue that there's a general tendency in some contexts/registers to allow vowel quality to be changed (within certain limits) to force rhymes, a la "immortal hand or eye" somehow matching up with "frame thy fearful symmetry," which could override a contrary tendency to not used clipped forms with changed vowels. Although of course natural rhyming is quite common for memorable clipped two-word combos, such as "AbFab" or "froyo." One could also note that a vowel change in the second component of a two-word clipped phrase may be less problematic because the reader/hearer will have been primed by the first piece, whereas in "dec abs" the vowel change (and all of this assumes my intuitive sense of how the coinage "wants" to be pronounced matches up with the intuitions of the median Anglophone) is in the first piece, i.e. that parallel to sci and hi, rather than to fi.

  22. Guy said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

    I've always assumed that the "eye"/"symmetry" rhyme could only be explained by Blake having an accent where those rhymed or nearly rhymed. Because I really can't imagine how anyone could try to make that rhyme work with, for example, my accent without sounding ridiculous. But sound changes in clippings happen at least sometimes (consider "soccer" derived from "association") and in the case of schwas it would seem especially natural since schwas tend to be de-schwaed even in speech when a word is slowly pronounced. Though in the case of "decree" I think the /ə/ is more likely to become /i/ than /ɛ/.

  23. GH said,

    August 20, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

    I'm not convinced the tendency for clipped words to maintain their original pronunciation is particularly strong. (Sticking with "sci", I remember that at university, a computer science student was known as a "comp.sci.", pronounced to rhyme with Chomsky.) Slang is prone to strange mutations in sound anyway.

    I also would guess that the vowel change between "decree" and "dec" is pretty transparent to most casual listeners, and that if you ask many people what the first syllable of "decree" is, they'll in fact say "deck".

  24. Sweary links #13 – Strong Language said,

    August 25, 2015 @ 9:54 pm

    […] Filipa Jodelka's review, in The Guardian, of "The Scandalous Lady W" — replete with phrases like "What a bloody frigging a-hole" — created a bit of a scandal itself, Language Log reports. […]

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