Botch

As in a botch job, or Israel's botched flotilla raid. Sensitive politics aside, the one thing the British media seemed to agree on was that Israel's actions were "botched". The word was ubiquitous.

And what a fine word it is. It has all the best characteristics: one syllable; a juicy trio of consonants all jammed together; a nice bilabial plosive to start. A what? That's right, a bilabial plosive - when your lips come together to make a sound (think "Big Brother"). Never let it be said that this column doesn't get to grips with the technology of language. And this week it's not just phonetics; we're going to embark on a little etymology, too. I can hear your roars of approval from here.

I must admit, I don't get on that well with etymology. I like the idea of it, but in reality it seems to be a frustrating course of study, offering vague explanations along the lines of: "Possibly first used by an angry Folkestone nun in 1493, but actually we have no idea." Botch, however, seems to have a well-known history, and one where, joy of joys, it changes meaning. It's the linguistic equivalent of Nick Clegg.

Apparently, botch started off in the 14th century as a word meaning patch or repair (in the Middle English bocchen). The same word, oddly, was also used to mean a tumour or swelling. The second definition had its wicked way with the first, and by the early 16th century "botch" had come to mean a lumpy patch, one done shoddily; a botch job.

There are hundreds of words that have changed their sense over time. But I like the fact that botch headed towards its direct opposite. And it shows, too, how much words gain an onomatopoeic quality - now the word "botch" sounds like a disaster; a sense of failure implicit within those crunching consonants (it is possible I'm overinterpreting).

So where now for "botch"? Maybe it will change again in a bid to salvage its reputation, go back to its roots, to the notion that to botch is to mend - a good thing, not a lump or mistake. Maybe Clegg, taking inspiration, will follow suit. Just a thought. l