The origins of "the Establishment": an etymological intrigue

Was the term really coined by the Spectator in 1955?

“The term ‘the Establishment,’ as it is now popularly used, was introduced into the common language and speech of England on September 23, 1955.” That is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The linguistic arbiter cites as its locus classicus a Spectator article written by the political journalist Henry Fairlie. The above quotation, however, was not weaned from the OED, but from Fairlie himself, writing in the New Yorker in 1968. The etymological memoir is simply entitled, “Evolution of a Term”.

Fairlie sets the scene:

In the week of September 23rd, there was only one possible subject for a political columnist to discuss: the acknowledgment by the Foreign Office of Burgess’s and Maclean’s defection. … As I sat in my room at 99 Gower Street, staring moodily at the blank piece of paper in my typewriter, the whole atmosphere of the Times during the days and months after the disappearance, the memory of hints and pressures to which I had paid only casual attention at the time, returned to me. I went and played a game of bar billiards at the Marlborough, the pub the Spectator used, and returned and wrote. I left in the evening, having turned in a column that appeared to me to be rather mediocre, but understandably so in the circumstances.

He ascribes the popularity of the term to the furious correspondence which followed. The term, he agrees, fulfilled a sorely felt need. The rest of the article deals with the proliferation of meaning that followed, particularly outside of Britain. Fairlie concedes that the term had existed in some form as long ago as 1841, when Ralph Waldo Emerson used it in “The Conservative”. It was bandied about for some years among his coterie, a group of “hungry young journalists, intent largely on enjoying ourselves at the expense of our elders and betters.” An occasional member of the group was the historian A J P Taylor, who “could be heard murmuring that he had used it some years earlier.”

“By October, 1957, in a special number of the Twentieth Century,” Fairlie notes, “Mr Taylor regarded the phrase with as much enthusiasm as if it were a bunch of sour grapes.”

He had every right. Here is the opening to Taylor’s article, retrieved this morning from the New Statesman archive, as it appeared on 29 August, 1953:

Trotsky tells how, when he first visited England, Lenin took him round London and, pointing out the sights, exclaimed: ‘That’s their Westminster Abbey! That’s their Houses of Parliament!’ Lenin was making a class, not a national, emphasis. By them he meant not the English, but the governing classes, the Establishment. And indeed in no other European country is the Establishment so clearly defined and so complacently secure. The Victorians spoke of the classes and the masses; and we still understand exactly what they meant. The Establishment talks with its own branded accent; eats different meals at different times; has its privileged system of education; its own religion, even, to a large extent, its own form of football. Nowhere else in Europe can you discover a man’s social position by exchanging a few words or breaking bread with him. The Establishment is enlightened; tolerant; even well-meaning. It has never been exclusive – drawing in recruits from outside, as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment – and nothing more corrupting.

Sour grapes indeed.

In today’s New Statesman, Rafael Behr introduces a new definition of the Establishment. The dead-end bureaucracy which entrapped Joseph K today has “walls marked with Serco and Capita logos”. The guards wear “G4S uniforms.” Power no longer rests with visible institutions, in the settings they once did, he contends, but with the boards of companies very few of us have ever heard of, with quangos and hedge funds, arcane networks of friends and former ministerial advisors. “It no longer makes sense to speak of ‘the establishment’ as it did in the days when the lord chamberlain could strike obscenity off the stage.” As Messieurs Fairlie and Taylor would no doubt inform him, it never did.

A J P Taylor with Michael Foot on Taylor's 70th birthday in 1976. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.