Ian Clayton: A tale of the common man

Julie London
Julie London

I had to laugh about all the fuss the other week when Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative party chief whip called a policeman a ‘pleb’ or not, depending on who you believe.

I said to our Eddie: “Do you know what a ‘pleb’ is?

fish and chips

fish and chips

I was surprised by his answer, he said: “It’s a derogatory term used by someone rich and powerful to insult someone who he thinks is from a lower class.”

I had to laugh. “Get in there Eddie, how do you know that?” He said: “We’ve been discussing it in politics at college.” I’m thrilled to know that St Wilfrid’s Sixth Form College is on the ball on these matters.

‘Pleb’ of course comes from the Latin ‘plebeian’ or ‘plebeius’ the common people as opposed to the aristocratic ‘patrician’ who were the self proclaimed ‘fathers of the country.’

That’s why some people still refer to their dads as ‘pater.’ It’s also part of the lyrics to one of my favourite jazz songs, Cry me a river by the incomparable Julie London.

You told me love was too plebeian, told me you were through with me and now you say you love me.”

Actually, I think I would quite like to be called a pleb by a Tory minister because it would mean I was of the common people and I like to be common.

I’m reminded of what a history teacher friend of mine once told me. She said when she first started teaching at South Featherstone School one of the girls in her class said: ‘We like you miss, because you’re common!’

She was not insulted, in fact she took it as a compliment, no doubt using Aristotle’s musing on the word ‘commonsense’ meaning ‘a highly developed power of inner sensation, an ability to make sound judgements in ordinary language.’

The word ‘common’ or ‘of the common people’ comes from Latin as well, this time from the word ‘vulgus’ or as we say these days vulgar in its old sense meaning ‘of the ordinary.’

That’s also why we say vulgar fractions or vulgar tongue when we refer to simple equations in maths or plain speaking.

The word divulge comes from this root as well, meaning to spread information among the people or to make generally known.

My grandmother said my father was vulgar, because he didn’t say pardon me when he belched.

My gran herself was a good belcher, though she always followed her good belch with the word ‘manners!’ which seemed to make it alright.

Funny things good manners though, I once made a chip sandwich at the table in a posh fish and chip restaurant in Leeds.

My gran slapped me on the back of the hand with the flat of her fish knife and said: “You don’t do that at home!”

When I said we all did that at home, my aunt Laura, who lived up Dorchester Avenue and was a bit posh, said: “No we don’t!” in earshot of the waitress.

The waitress smiled at me and I whispered: “Yes we do!”

My gran and aunt spent the rest of the meal tutting and looking round to see if anybody was watching us, then when I asked for some more bread so that I could mop up my sauce and mushy peas they nearly fainted.