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Stories behind Words: dapper

Stories behind words: dapperI was never cut out to be a language teacher. In the summer of 1980, I was teaching English in London. The school wasn’t very good, and I was even worse. I answered an ad for ‘trainee lexicographers’ to work on a new learner’s dictionary, and soon found myself in a publisher’s office, doing a test to see whether I had the requisite skills.

Part of the test involved writing sentences to illustrate particular words in natural-sounding contexts. And one of these words was dapper. Hmmm … what to say? I knew it meant ‘smart’ (in the British sense of ‘well-dressed’) and I was pretty sure it was a word you only used about men. Eventually I came up with something like: He was a dapper little man in a dark suit.

There are two additional features here: the dark suit hints at a certain kind of ‘smartness’ (formal and correct, rather than stylish or unconventional); and the little implies that dapper men are usually of less than average height. With the language resources available to us now, we can confirm that both these features are typical. For instance, our corpus includes about 40 cases of dapper occurring with small, short, or (especially) little, and in most cases the subject is a middle-aged or older man – as these examples show:

We were met by a regular army sergeant. He must have stood all of five foot tall, a short dapper little man.
Silver-haired and very dapper in black jacket, waistcoat, and striped trousers, he was the quintessence of an old-school Cambridge don.

But where did that sentence of mine come from? The late John Sinclair – the father of corpus lexicography – often warned against relying on intuition, rather than on the objective evidence of a corpus. And in principle he was right: our intuitions about language are subjective and often untrustworthy. But somewhere in our mental lexicons, there are facts about what words mean and how they combine. We may not be able to articulate them, but we draw on them whenever we write or speak. Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished ‘known knowns’ (things we know that we know), known unknowns (things we’re aware that we don’t know) and – what worried him most – ‘unknown unknowns’ (things we don’t even realise we don’t know). But he missed one out: unknown knowns – things we do know at some level, but without being conscious that we know them. And that includes our intuitions about language.

The test made me think about how wonderfully subtle words can be (offering such precise shades of meaning) and made me realise that it would make more sense for me to work with language than to try teaching it. Oh yes, and I got the job.

About Michael Rundell
Michael Rundell is Editor-in-Chief of the Macmillan dictionaries and a director of Lexicography MasterClass, a company that runs dictionary projects and training courses in lexicography and lexical computing. He is the co-author (with Sue Atkins) of the Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography (2008).

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  • 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’.

    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….?

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