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9 Comments

  • Very interesting. I looked quickly through the 690 or so ukWaC lines for ‘dapper’ and didn’t find a single one describing a woman, though ‘dapper’ often describes clothes, and occasionally animals, buildings, even a car. (I found one ‘dapper, lanky female’ but it turned out to be a bird, a black-throated mango, no less.) However, it collocates slightly more often with young than with older men (though they remain ‘little’), but this is a minor difference, probably reflecting the composition of the different corpora we used. The collocational profile of ‘dapper’ in the American corpus COCA is pretty similar to that of both. I collect adjectives and verbs that are only used about men, or women: there are surprisingly many.

  • Very enjoyable story, Michael (and belated congrats on getting the job!). I’ve used dapper now and then but never consciously associated it with under-average height. What you say about our linguistic intuitions and the subtle shades of meanings that words accumulate dovetails nicely with a passage on the word perky which I posted on Tumblr today, from a book by John McWhorter.

  • I’d say that one of the main qualifications for being a lexicographer is having the kind of feeling for language you describe, Michael. And if someone hasn’t got it I’m not sure they can acquire it (others may disagree)
    I looked back to the example for dapper in the 2nd edition of the Cobuild dictionary, which will have been lifted more or less intact from the corpus of the time: it is:
    The bartender, a dapper little man named Al, was beaming at him.
    So you have the smallness of stature there too, straight from the corpus’s mouth. The benevolence is an added element here; and in fact the word always makes me think of Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet, who may or may not be short but is generally cordial.

  • I really just wanted to write that my first association with the word dapper is Hercule Poirot, but Stan (above) has already said that. So my second association is ‘Dapper Dan’ George Clooney’s character’s hair pomade in the film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ Nice word, nice post.

  • Thanks, Michael – you’ve reminded me of one of my favourite old time music hall numbers – ‘Any old iron’ by Harry Champion. Here he is 1911, using the noun ‘dapper’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsiYGowS_a8

    Any old iron, any old iron, any, any, any, old iron?
    You look neat – talk about a treat,
    You look a dapper from your napper to your feet.
    Dressed in style, with a brand new tile,
    And your father’s old green tie on,
    Oh I wouldn’t give you tuppence for your old watch chain,
    Old iron, old iron.

    This line seems to support the idea of smallness, also, because of the use of ‘neat’, which you wouldn’t normally apply to a large, rangy person.
    Actually there’s loads of great slang words in these old songs- ’tile’ for hat; ‘dial’ for face, ‘napper’ for head.
    Now I just need to find out how to get this song out of my head!

  • In the ‘i’ last Thursday the style column was headlined “Stay dapper – and dry”. A tall blond young man models a light-coloured raincoat worn with turned-up jeans; other raincoats on the page are bright red and bright yellow, hooded, reassuringly expensive. The association of ‘dapper’ with a small middle-aged city gent may be on its way out, but they do recommend that you carry a black umbrella iif your choice of rainwear is the ‘always tasteful’ hoodless mac. Just thought you’d like to know…

  • Love the concept of “unknown knowns”.
    An owl apparently is able to memorise every feature of its territory so that it can fly and hunt in the dark without crashing into any obstacle.
    Our own autonomic brains contain a star-map of the cosmos of words we have come across as we live our lives, which we leave, perhaps for social culture reasons, largely untapped, at least in conversation.
    “Dapper”‘s German-Dutch origins are perhaps the reason most Brit men would feel slightly-uncomfortable being thus complimented…..?
    Perhaps the Poirot association of over-fastidiousness in dress has something to do with it….?