Every year our journal Key Words includes a new ‘keyword’, usually linked to the general ‘theme’ of the issue, in the tradition of Williams’s historical analysis of language and its changing meanings. Written by Tony Crowley, the aim of the entries is to provide a deliberately brief account of a socially significant or problematic term in our contemporary language.

Class

Class is a complex word, not least because it has both a general, relatively uncontentious sense, and a developed set of social and political meanings. The word was a dual borrowing into English from the Latin classis and French classe and and entered the language in the sixteenth century. The etymology was generally held to relate to ‘clāmo’, ‘to call’ (hence class as ‘those called together’), but this is now disputed.

There is a tendency to believe that the general, relatively neutral, sense of class, meaning a group of things (plants or animals, for example) produced by a process of division, preceded the political sense of the term, but in fact it is the other way around. ‘Classis’ in Latin referred to the system introduced by Servius Tullius for dividing the Roman populace into five groups, according to their ability to pay tribute, for the purposes of military service. The origins of the term then lie in a calculation made on economic grounds by the state, and the first uses of class in English related to exactly this meaning in Roman History. The extension to the general meaning of ‘group or division’ followed in the late sixteenth century. The first shift referred to a group of students taught together (a usage retained in relation to education), but a significant development saw class used to refer to a distinct category of things grouped together on the basis of shared properties or qualities. As noted above, this is a relatively uncontentious meaning, though it is important to recall that such differentiation – or ‘classification’ (1767) – is the result of human intellectual activity and is thus historical and variable.

The crucial shift to the use of class to refer to groups of people within society was made by explicit reference to its etymological origins. Thomas Smith’s De republica Anglorum: The maner of gouernement or policie of the realme of England (1583) noted ‘the fourth sort or classe amongest us, is of those which the olde Romans called capite censij proletarij or operæ, day labourers, poore husbandmen, yea marchantes or retailers which haue no free lande, copiholders, and all artificers, as Taylers, Shoomakers, Carpenters, Brickemakers, Bricklayers, Masons’. And strikingly, two of the terms that belong to the contemporary vocabulary of class were first recorded in this period: ‘lower class’ appeared in 1637 and ‘middle class’ in 1654 (though ‘working class’ is not registered until 1735). This is, however, slightly deceptive, since the common terms for divisions within society until at least the late eighteenth century, were ‘rank’, ‘order’, ‘estate’ and ‘degree’. These terms pertained to a conservative way of thinking about society which prioritised birth and held the social order to be constructed naturally. 

The social changes initiated by Industrial development and the intensification of a particular type of capitalism produced the new language of class which eventually superseded conceptions of ‘rank’, ‘order’, and so on. This was, however, a long, complicated, and often confused process. There are two main trends in the later terminology of class. The first, which develops throughout the eighteenth century and is consolidated in the nineteenth, relates effectively to a view of society that owes much to the older view of ‘order’ or ‘rank’; it posits a fixed social hierarchy consisting of the lower, middle and upper classes. The second, which derives from the social, political and economic struggles in the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, was an extension of the distinction made between the ‘productive’ (or ‘useful’) classes, and the ‘privileged’ class (‘privilege’ itself is an important keyword). This was a crucial development in that it embodied a view of class based on economic function and relationship, rather than hierarchical model. The problem, however, was that the new distinction – hard-fought and hard-won – was borrowed from the older language of class, which meant that the ‘productive’ classes were specified as the ‘working class’ and the ‘middle class’ (as opposed to the idle, privileged and unproductive ‘upper class’). The difficulty of a shared terminology for two very different conceptions of class, based on two distinct views of society, is clear and it has continued to produce confusion. On the one hand, class is viewed in terms of social position and cultural status (the spatial terminology of upper, middle, and lower, carries with it the connotation of social distinction). But on the other hand, class is conceived as the consequence of structured economic relationships (both the working and middle class sell their labour). The problem lies with the overlap of the terminology, since in given contexts it is often difficult to understand whether class is being used in a general descriptive sense (using the language of social and cultural hierarchy) or in a more analytical sense (using the language of economics). This is particularly acute in the use of ‘middle class’: ‘X is middle class’ can mean that X belongs to the middle class, as opposed to the working class, or it can mean that X, like her working- class counterparts, sells her labour power in order to survive.

The simplistic prioritisation of one or the other of these senses of class can lead to ‘labourism’ (in which ‘the working class’ often becomes the privileged term) or ‘culturalism’ (in which ‘social distinction’ is the main focus). For socialist analysis, both meanings of the term class, together with the differing views of society that they entail, and the confusions that they often engender, need to be borne in mind. That said, and notwithstanding the dangers of ‘economic reductionism’, given that socialism is an account of the social order that is premised on understanding the prevailing economic structure at any given time, it is clear that an analysis of class in specific contexts has to begin with economic relationships rather than sociological categories. This is necessary because if the economic basis of the analysis is missing, the danger is that such categories become reified as eternally given, as in the old hierarchical model, rather than the result of dynamic forms of historical practice within prevailing economic conditions.

Commitment

The origins of commitment are complex; the term is derived from the early fifteenth century verb ‘commit’, a double borrowing from the Latin committere and the French (via Anglo-Norman) comitter. The Latin root is the prefix ‘com’ (‘together, in combination or union’) + the verb ‘mittere’ (‘to send’). In Latin the wide range of meanings included ‘to bring together’, ‘to engage in battle’, ‘to begin’, ‘to involve’, ‘to consign’, ‘to entrust’, ‘to impart’, ‘to perpetrate’, ‘to break the law’, and ‘to incur a penalty’. Later, post-classical, meanings were: ‘to send someone to trial or prison’, ‘to send on a mission’ and ‘to appoint’. In French the range was broadly similar, though with some extensions: ‘to perpetrate a crime, sin, or error’, ‘to hand over’, ‘to accomplish’, ‘to punish’, ‘to send’, ‘to empower’, ‘to appoint’, and ‘to command’.

Commitment enters English in the mid to late sixteenth century and carries over many of the root senses. There are four main semantic trajectories in the early uses which are related, though the connections are not obvious: detention; to send (for consideration); to entrust; to perpetrate. The dominant link is the use of commitment in relation to the law. Thus the earliest use pertains to detention before a trial (or imprisonment afterwards), and is retained in legal use (though the more usual general term is now ‘commital’). An extension of this sense is recorded from the nineteenth century and refers to detention in an institution for care or treatment (specifically in what we now call a psychiatric hospital). Concurrent with the first sense is the technical meaning (now rare but still used in parliamentary jargon) of sending legislation for the consideration of a committee for the purposes of scrutiny. This is clearly related to another sense that also appears in the early seventeenth century: entrusting something to the care of another, specifically the transfer of responsibility or control. The final sense amongst these early uses of commitment is a departure, though rooted in the etymological origins of ‘commit’: perpetrating a crime, sin or similar offence (in contemporary usage the term would now more usually be ‘commission’).

Interestingly, although all of the early senses are retained in the language one way and another, it is not until the end of the eighteenth century that the first use of commitment in the modern sense appears. That is, the general meaning of the act of making a binding obligation to a particular course of action or policy, or the act of giving an undertaking (implicitly or explicitly). The narrowing of reference from the action to the meaning of an obligation or responsibility per se, occurs slightly later in the early to mid nineteenth century. Significantly, although the late-eighteenth century sense is non-specific in its connotation, the earliest recorded examples are political (George Washington in 1789 and Thomas Jefferson in 1793). Given that politics involves the conscious espousal of causes, involving belief and practice, it is unsurprising therefore to note the late nineteenth century development of commitment in the sense of being dedicated to a political cause, ideology, or particular form of activity. There are two further semantic extensions to the term. The first is its specific use in Sartrean Existentialism in the mid twentieth century, to mean engagement with the world by committing oneself to a political cause. The second is the broadening of the term to mean the act of committing oneself to a person in a specific relationship (formally or simply by practice). Two other meanings also occur in the twentieth century: the act of assigning resources for a particular purpose, and by extension, in a specialised military use, the deployment of troops. In contemporary use, commitment is often deployed in a considerably weakened sense to mean engagement or effort, though the stronger sense persists even in general usage.

It is in the context of questions of aesthetics that the meaning of commitment has been most problematic in the twentieth century. Debates around politics and aesthetics within the socialist tradition have often revolved around competing definitions of this complex term, specifically in relation to the political alignment of a work of art or its author. Marx and Engels, for example, dismissed what they called ‘tendency literature’, while praising the work of Balzac and Dickens. And Brecht rejected what he took to be Lukacs’s narrow demand for a specific form of writing, with the contention that artistic production is unpredictable and therefore not politically controllable. Summarising these debates, Raymond Williams argued that the meaning of commitment within aesthetics is as yet unresolved and remains unhelpfully positioned between a type of formalism (the imposition of a particular style) and a late version of Romanticism (in which the individual artist commits to a cause). In the political sense, commitment must mean a conscious and active choice of position. In relation to the aesthetic, however, the term remains contested and open, and thus subject to contextual understanding.

Crisis

Crisis is first recorded in the English language in the early sixteenth century, as a borrowing from the Latin crisis, though its roots lie in Ancient Greek. Derived from κρίνω (‘to pick out’, ‘choose’, ‘judge’, ‘interpret’), κρίσις had a number of related meanings, including ‘separation’, ‘decision’, ‘judgment’, ‘choice’, ‘interpretation’ (of dreams and portents), ‘verdict’ (of a court), ‘test’ (of skill), and ‘the turning point of a disease’, hence ‘sudden change for better or worse’.

It was this last sense of the term that first appears in English in medical discourse to mean the point in the course of a disease when a significant change occurs towards recovery or death. And thus, by extension, any sudden change in the progress of a disease (as in the later usage, ‘the moment of crisis’). The first recorded use of the term illustrates the etymological and medical senses together: ‘crisis sygnifyeth iudgemente, and in thys case, it is vsed for a sodayne chaunge in a disease’ (1543). The emphasis on judgment is clear in the related development of ‘critic’ (‘one who passes judgment’), recorded in 1598, and ‘criticism’ (‘the act or process of judgment’), in 1607).

The modern and now familiar use of crisis is an extension of the earliest sense in English (which is retained in the phrase ‘in a critical condition’ in medical reports) . There are, however, two related though slightly distinct meanings. First, crisis meaning ‘a crucial or decisive stage in the development of something’, which linked to the early sense of the turning point (either way) in an illness. Second, by an important figurative extension, crisis meaning ‘a state of affairs in which a crucial change will take place’.

In the sense-development of the term, there is a clear shift away from an immediate moment of difficulty towards a more general meaning of a ‘state of affairs’. But the most important modification in the modern sense of the term is the almost complete elimination of the senses of ‘judgment’ and ‘change’. In contemporary use, crisis has lost these connotations and has both broadened and weakened to become more of a catch-all term meaning something like ‘a bad or unfortunate set of circumstances’ with reference to a broad range of seriousness. It can occur in phrases as different as ‘the crisis of capitalism’, ‘a mid-life crisis’, and ‘bit of a crisis doing my keyword entry’. This broadening and weakening dates from the mid-late late nineteenth century and can be found in a number of compound forms: ‘crisis -mongers’ (1841); a ‘crisis -night’ (1896); ‘crisis -proof’ (1898); ‘crisis fund’ (1903); ‘crisis -minded’ (1938); ‘crisis feeling’ (1940); ‘crisis money’ (1960); and the now familiar ‘crisis management’ (1965).

There are two important things to note then in the sense history of this term. First, the broadening and weakening that takes place relatively recently, and second, the near-eradication of the sense of human agency involving ‘interpretation’, ‘judgment’, and ‘choice’. The result of this historical development means that crisis can be used within a wide semantic range. One particular contemporary use is noteworthy: crisis is now frequently deployed used to refer to a state of affairs which is so complex and difficult that there is little that human beings can do (‘economic crisis’ and ‘environmental crisis’ for example). This is problematic in that these types of crisis are, in reality, precisely a result of judgments and choices made by human beings. In this instance, the contemporary use of crisis prevents us from thinking how we can best choose to make significant change and thus plays an important ideological function in its denial of historical agency. 

Post-truth

Post-truth,frequently used in the phrase ‘post-truth politics’, became central to political debate in 2016, largely in the context of the Brexit campaign in Britain and the General Election in the United States. The term is composed of two elements. The first is derived from the Latin adverb and preposition post, ‘after, behind’, as in ‘post mortem’ (after death) or ‘post merīdiem’ (‘p.m.’, after midday). It is used in English as a prefix with the general meaning of ‘that which comes after, later’, as in ‘post-apartheid’, ‘post-natal’, ‘post-puberty’, ‘post-Reformation’, though in technical usage, usually anatomical or medical, the physical sense of ‘behind’ is retained, as in ‘post-auricular’ (behind the ear), ‘post-velar’ (behind the soft-palate), and indeed the ‘posterior’ itself. The second element, ‘truth’, originally meant ‘loyalty, fidelity, constant allegiance’ to a person or principle, but from e.14c it was used with the now dominant modern sense of ‘that which conforms to fact or reality’ (though this usage elides the complex process by which such conformity is established).

Given the etymology, post-truth might be understood as ‘that which occurs once the truth has been established’, and the O.E.D. claims (without supporting evidence) that the term was first used in this sense. The contemporary meaning, however, is distinct, though its origin again lies with the Latin ‘post’, or at least an extended use of that term. Because, derived from the sense ‘after, behind’, ‘post’ could also mean ‘secondary, less important, inferior’, as in the verb ‘posthabēre’, ‘to place after’, hence ‘to hold as secondary, subordinate’ (the now obsolete English verb ‘posthabit’ meant ‘to think of as secondary’). In this use, ‘post-’ suggests not something that comes later than the noun it qualifies, but rather that the noun itself has been relegated to secondary significance. This can be seen in terms such as ‘post-national’ (first recorded in 1945) or ‘post-racial’ (1971). In these cases, what ‘post-’ signifies is not ‘after the nation’ or ‘after “race”’, but a context in which the nation or “race” is not considered to be of primary importance. It is this sense of ‘post-’ that holds the key to post-truth.

As the OED notes, the term is first recorded (1992) as part of an American leftist critique of the First Gulf War (‘we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world’), and was used in the title of Ralph Keyes’s s The Post-Truth Era (2004). But the OED definition of this recent coinage is problematic: ‘denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. This is misleading in that it sets up a false opposition between objective facts and appeals to emotion and personal belief (depending on its rhetorical delivery, a statement of objective fact can also be an appeal to emotion and personal belief). In actuality, the significant opposition is between statements of fact and falsehoods and this is precisely the distinction that is eroded under the aegis of post-truth. For in the realm of post-truth, truth is relegated to secondary importance at best. This is not to say that truth has lost its cultural significance (it is perfectly plausible to imagine a barely literate Trump tweet – ‘climate change. invented by chinese. sad. true.’), but that there is little if any concern to establish the truth, since truth in and of itself is not held to matter. In this sense, post-truth can be understood to be a close relation to Stephen Colbert’s 2005 coinage ‘truthiness’ – ‘that which seems or sounds true, or is felt to be true, but which is in fact untrue’.

Another phrase to describe a statement that seems to be true, but which is in fact false, is ‘plausible lie’ (the sub-title of Keyes’s s The Post-Truth Era is ‘Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life’). And this raises the question of what it is, precisely, that is new about the practice of post-truth. In Tacitus’s Agricola (c.AD 98), a Caledonian rebel commented on the Roman imperialists: ‘to robbery, butchery, and rapine, they give the lying name of “government”; they create a desolation and call it peace’. In Politics and the English Language (1946) George Orwell commented on the deceptive euphemisms of the language of war: ‘defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification’. Later, in a distinct but related development, the American military invented ‘psy ops’ (1965), characterised by the OED as a ‘noncombative military operation intended to influence the morale or attitude of one’s opponent’. In such operations ‘black propaganda’ (a term that dates to the mid nineteenth century) was used: false, unattributable information, ‘especially propaganda purporting to come from an enemy’s own sources and designed to lower morale’ (OED). Are ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ really just Trumpian developments?

Post-truth is not a new phenomenon, though the term itself is a recent coinage and its prominence is clearly attributable to the brazen willingness of members of the political élite to lie unashamedly. Evidently the danger the term poses is real enough, not least because it is potentially effective in the field of ideology (the more we are told we live in the era of post truth, the more likely it is that people might accept it to be the case). Yet in fact, as the response to the lies of the Brexiteers and Trump shows, the truth matters, and given contemporary technological resources, there are significant possibilities of disproving political falsehoods (Chomsky’s entire political career, it should be noted, has been built on analysis of publicly available materials). Post-truth is politically significant then because it is an attempt to eradicate an important mode of challenging the proponents of the ruling order when they cheat and deceive on its behalf. ‘Cheating’ and ‘deceiving’, it should be noted, depend on a notion of truth, rather than a world in which there are no facts, simply differing views.

Privilege

Privilege is first recorded in early Old English as a direct borrowing from the Latin prīvilēgium though it was later reinforced by, or possibly re-borrowed from, Anglo-Norman privilege. Its meaning in classical Latin was a bill or law originally against, later in favour of, an individual; the later meaning developed to signify a special right, advantage, prerogative, or claim. The etymology is relatively simple: Latin ‘prīvus’, ‘private, peculiar’ (‘restricted to one person or a small number of persons as opposed to the public, wider community’) + ‘lēg’- , ‘lēx’, ‘law’ (ultimately from ‘legĕre’, ‘to read, select’ – hence ‘legal’). The root sense of legality is significant since it reveals the organised, structural and authoritative basis of a specific form of preferential treatment.

In its earliest use privilege was used with reference to ecclesiastical law, specifically a Papal ordinance that granted exemption from canon or civil law; its status was general and ongoing (as opposed to a ‘dispensation’, which granted licence only in relation to a particular instance). The central issue here is the the authority which underpins the right to grant privilege; in the early uses of the term, precisely because (divine) authority lay with the Pope, privilege superseded civil law. Interestingly, however, running parallel with this first sense, though its developed use came slightly later, there is a secular use of privilege to mean a right or advantage granted to an individual or group beyond the rights or advantages given to others. First recorded in Old English this sense development occurs properly from the C14 and the OED definition is revealing in that it struggles somewhat with the characterisation of the nature of privilege, which it presents as more than ‘usual’, ‘normal’ and even ‘average’ rights. This of course begs the question as to what such rights were and upon whom they were bestowed, as well as eliding the social mechanisms by which privilege was conferred. Examples of privilege, again from C14, included special allowances or advantages attaching to a ‘specified office or rank’ (again originally clerical, later class-related), from which emerges the specialised rights and immunities granted to political legislators (‘parliamentary privilege’). Developing alongside this meaning, again from the C14, is a highly important sense: ‘an advantage or benefit, an honour, a rare opportunity, good luck’. This is evidently a weakening of the idea of an advantage granted by law, but its ideological significance again lies in its occlusion of the process by which privilege is granted. More often than not, the use of the term in this sense suggests that the benefit in question was bestowed by providence or chance (God in the earlier uses) rather than by specific social arrangements and historical choices. The contemporary, highly weakened, use of the term occurs in academic humble-bragging: ‘I’m privileged to have had an article published in Key Words’.

Privilege as a mass noun, used to refer to the fact or state of being privileged in a general sense, unsurprisingly derives from the concatenation of different meanings outlined above. Its crucial narrowing, however, appears to take place in the mid to late eighteenth century and it is used from that point specifically to refer to what the OED describes as the ‘economic and social privileges associated with rank or status’ (note the absence of the later term ‘class’). Yet interestingly, the main focus in the illustrative quotations in the dictionary is on the social aspect of privilege, particularly in relation to what might be called manners or deference. Thus Richardson in 1756, referring to a man ‘who wants to assume airs of privilege, and thinks he has a right to be impertinent’, or Orwell’s ‘no privilege and no boot-licking’ (1938). Indeed, the economic aspect of privilege is made explicit only in specialist uses of the term: ‘the granting of a legal or commercial right conferring advantage over others – for example a patent or monopoly right’, and ‘a right to buy or to sell a particular stocks or commodities at a specified price within a given time’. Until relatively recently, however, the dominant sense was that rather loose meaning of social and cultural advantage – Oxbridge as a bastion of privilege.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, and certainly in recent years, the term sharpened and indeed strengthened. Emerging from debates in Women’s Studies – specifically Peggy MacIntosh’s paper ‘White privilege and male privilege’ (1988) – ‘privilege was used initially to refer to the unearned structural advantages granted to men in patriarchal society. This sense was then extended to refer to any other form of unmerited benefit bestowed on an individual or social group on the basis of intersecting characteristics such as ‘race’, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability, and age, through the organisation of society. The related phrase ‘check your privilege’ was then deployed to demand a self-reflexive acknowledgment of the role that unwarranted advantage might play in the lives of those who are privileged economically and socially in particular ways. This has led to confusion, not to say deeply felt resentment. The objection has been raised that, for example, a working-class white woman may have battled against a variety of structural disadvantages in order to achieve an educational qualification through merit. How then is she privileged? The answer lies in the fact that in a deeply unequal society, in which inequality is stratified in terms of the categories cited above, that white woman will have been advantaged structurally in certain ways, while still being disadvantaged in many others. Indeed, in a certain sense, that’s precisely what social inequality means – the structural organisation of advantage and disadvantage in order to benefit some and harm others. The call to ‘check your privilege’ then is not a personal accusation, a charge that someone has done something wrong, but an appeal to consider the ways in which structural advantage and disadvantage is conferred authoritatively on all of us. Privilege in this sense may no longer take the form of a private law, but its effects are quite as binding.

Scouse

Scouse, an important term in the discourse of contemporary British culture, has a long and complex history; it originates in a contraction of ‘lobscouse’, an early modern English nautical term for a basic dish consisting of meat, vegetables, and ship’s biscuit. This sub-standard standard fare was first recorded in a satire on the English navy (1708): ‘He has sent the Fellow a thousand times to the Devil, that first invented Lobscouse’. Yet although the term was evidently coined pre-eighteenth century, its roots are obscure. One possibility is that ‘lobscouse’ was a corruption of ‘lob’s course’, as in Smollett(1751): ‘a mess of that savoury composition known by the name of lob’s-course’. This would suggest the sense of ‘a meal served to a lob’ (a sixteenth-century coinage meaning ‘clumsy fellow, country bumpkin, clown or lout’). Given this, it seems plausible that the dish may have originated in England and spread through maritime trade (in which Liverpool played a central role in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Evidence to support this hypothesis lies in the appearance of a series of related terms for this type of stew across the northern European languages (modern Norwegian ‘lapskaus’, Swedish ‘lapskojs’, Danish ‘skipperlabskovs’, Dutch ‘lapskous’ and German ‘labskaus’), and the fact that ‘lobscouse’ was used in American English from the early-to-mid nineteenth century. The transition to the shortened form scouse appears to have been made in Liverpool by the last decades of the eighteenth century, chiefly in references to institutional food. Eden’s The State of the Poor: or, an History of the Labouring Classes in England, From the Conquest to the Present Period (1797), for example, makes reference to the expenditure on food in the Liverpool poorhouse: ‘Beef, 101 lbs. for scouse’; ‘14 Measures potatoes for scouse’ (420 lbs); and ‘Onions for ditto’ (28 lbs).

Yet if this accounts for the history of scouse the dish, the development of the transferred senses of the term is more complicated and difficult to trace. The fifth edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1961) records ‘Scouseland’, meaning Liverpool, as ‘nautical and (Liverpool) dockers’’ usage of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (though there is no evidence given in support of the claim). But the crucial shift, which associates people, place and cultural (culinary) tradition, appears to have taken place around the First World War in Forces’ slang. In fact the evidence suggests that the use of scouse, and the derivative ‘scouser’, was a negative, or at least playfully disrespectful, way of referring to the inhabitants of Liverpool by people from elsewhere. This pejorative sense is confirmed by the first reports of the use of scouse within the city, which note that it referred to denizens of the Scotland Road area (one of the poorest, and most Irish, districts). Indeed, while it remained as the name used in Army and Naval slang for Liverpudlian members of the Forces, scouse failed to displace ‘Dicky Sam’, the most widely used nickname for a Liverpudlian which dated from the early nineteenth century, until the 1920s-30s (at which point it began to contend with ‘wacker’ – the alternative form until scouse was generally adopted in the 1970s).

Strikingly, the use of scouse to refer to the language of Liverpool (usually the accent, though it can also mean the local dialect), is relatively recent; the first recorded use is in a headline in the Liverpool Echo – ‘Scouse lingo how it all began’ (1950). Though there is evidence of a sustained interest in the local language from the early twentieth century, the overt link between people, place and a form of speech only appeared and became consolidated through the activities of a small group of local historians, folklorists, entertainers and journalists in the 1950s. In many ways this was an ‘invention of tradition’ which, as so often, took the form of a combination of historical fact, myth, nostalgia, pride, ambivalence and pragmatic story-telling. And it produced a powerful if reductive narrative of the history of the city, one which belies Liverpool’s intricate multicultural past, through the history of its language (in this version, in essence: scouse = Lancashire dialect + Irish-English). Yet the most significant element that distinguishes the appearance of scouse is the fact that it was promulgated in influential early modes of popular culture and indeed became integral to them as a way of representing aspects of Northern working-class life. From the early and important BBC TV documentary on Northern working class city life, Morning in the Streets (1958), to the earliest forms of TV drama, No Trams to Lime Street (1959) and Z-Cars (from 1962), through the impact of The Beatles, and, later, The Liver Birds, A Family at War, The Wackers, Boys from the Blackstuff, Bread, Merseybeat and, for twenty-one years, Brookside, scouse was enregistered as the language of Liverpool. This was always an open and ambivalent process and scouse was and is both a familiar and flexible ideological marker. It has been used at specific moments to represent the lovable, cheeky, witty rogue (‘the scouse git’ of Till Death Do Us Part,1965); the malingering and socially damaging trade union militant (frequently figured in the broadcast news of the late 1970s); the whining, self-pitying victim (Hillsborough, 1989); the confident, assertive and irreverent maker of fashion and culture (the European Capital of Culture, 2008); the deserving recipient of justice (Hillsborough, 2014). Thus although it retains its former senses of a type of stew and a person from Liverpool, scouse is perhaps best understood as a prime and indicative contemporary example of a mode of cultural representation that is peculiarly British: a curious, powerful and often damaging concatenation of language, class, geography, identity and political significance.