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The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher’s linguistic legacy

The debate around Margaret Thatcher’s political and social legacy will no doubt continue for some time yet. But what of her linguistic legacy? Did she leave her mark on the English language?

Iron Handbags

It’s fair to say that Margaret Thatcher’s linguistic legacy lies more in what others have said about her and her politics than any neologisms of her own creation. In news coverage over the past few days, there has been much talk of her as the Iron Lady, and it is perhaps this epithet more than any that has characterized reception of her political career (not least because she endorsed it by using it of herself). Although it seems like a straightforward compound on the face of it (IRON + LADY), there is actually more to be said.

The entry is currently being updated as part of the on-going revision project of the Oxford English Dictionary, and when published will reflect the more surprising origin: the Russian equivalent železnaja dama appeared in the Soviet Army Newspaper Krasnaja Zvezda (Red Star) on 24 January 1976, with reference to Mrs Thatcher. The phrase itself appears to have been modelled on an extended use of the term iron maiden (which, in the previous year, a journalist had used in the Daily Mirror to refer to Thatcher). Only one day later, the following quotation appeared in the British press:

1976 Sunday Times 25 Jan. 3/2 The Soviet defence ministry newspaper Red Star yesterday called Opposition leader Margaret Thatcher, ‘The iron lady’ and accused her of trying to revive the cold war.

And so a nickname was born. While it has been applied to other women since (from politicians to tennis players), the resonance with Margaret Thatcher remains the strongest. Interestingly, at the time she had not yet become Britain’s first female prime minister, but rather was still leader of the Opposition – a position she had held for less than a year at this point. Yet her strong and unflinching approach was already being noticed.

This approach is also reflected in the verb handbag, meaning “to subject to a forthright verbal assault or to strident criticism”. Currently the first quotation in the OED for this is from a 1982 issue of the Economist, which reads “Treasury figures published last week show how good she has proved at handbagging the civil service”. The she in question? Margaret Thatcher. On-going OED research has uncovered an earlier example of the verb, from 1952 in a Canadian newspaper, used in a literal sense “to hit with a handbag”, and the updated entry will be published in due course. But the figurative sense begins with reference to Margaret Thatcher, and remains most commonly associated with her.

Wet versus dry

While wet as an adjective meaning “ineffectual or inept” had been around at least since 1916, and as a noun meaning “an ineffectual person” since the 1930s,  it developed a political meaning which became strongly associated with the Thatcher administration. A similar transformation occurred with the corresponding parts of speech of its antonym dry. Put simply, if you were a supporter of the monetarist policies espoused by Mrs Thatcher you were a dry; if you opposed them, you were labelled a wet. While the terms were not confined to talking about the Conservative Party, the names did become synonymous with the various groups within the party in the UK.

Call me Tina – there is no alternative

This is perhaps a more ephemeral, and consequently a less familiar, example, unless you are of a certain age. In the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph on 22 May 1980, Mrs Thatcher wrote:

“There’s no easy popularity in what we are proposing, but it is fundamentally sound. Yet I believe people accept there is no real alternative”.

She was using ‘it’ to describe the policies that she and her government would follow, and she made use of the slogan many times afterwards. The initial letters of four of the five last words went on to form an acronym – TINA – which became yet another of Thatcher’s nicknames, later extended to any doctrinaire approach, particularly those which were somewhat unpopular.

It’s not just about the politics

In the early 1980s, Mrs Thatcher accused the Labour politician Denis Healey of being “frit”, corresponding with modern day “frightened”. It was widely reported, at the time, that she had employed a Lincolnshire dialect word, demonstrating her Grantham roots. This wasn’t quite true – “frit” is used much more widely in English regional use that just Lincolnshire. The term was seized upon by her political opponents and cries of “frit”, “is she frit?”, and even “Madame Frit” could be heard in the House of Commons for a good few years afterward.

Thatcher’s Britain

There are also a number of words or phrases that actually bear her name. The political and economic policies advocated by her, both as leader of the Conservative Party and as British Prime Minister became known as Thatcherism , a term that the OED first cites in a memo from the Public Records Office in 1977. Thatcherite, a supporter of these policies, is currently first cited one year earlier. Thatcheresque followed fairly quickly two years later.

Thatcher’s Britain and Thatcher’s child also have entries in the OED. The former is the older, first being used in October 1979, only 5 months after she became Prime Minister, speculating on the effect her leadership would have on the country. The latter is a little more recent, with a current first date of 1986.

Is that a soundbite I hear before me?

Where would politicians (or perhaps more accurately the media) be without them? There are plenty of pithy quotations by and about Mrs Thatcher, which have turned into soundbites over the years. From her speech to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1980 we have the famous “You turn if you want; the lady’s not for turning”, echoing the title of the 1948 play The Lady’s Not For Burning by Christopher Fry.

In 1984, she met Mikhail Gorbachev, and declared “We can do business together”, which came a short while before the official party policy of glasnost was adopted in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, she appears not to have been the first politician to use this turn of phrase in the context of talking to the Soviets. In February of the same year, the Senate Majority Leader in the USA, Howard H Baker Jnr, used an almost identical phrase when discussing a potential meeting between the then leaders of the USA and the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko, saying “I think they can do business together”.

And who in the UK can forget her use of the royal we when she announced the birth of her first grandchild in March 1989 with the immortal words “We have become a grandmother”?

Perhaps the most vivid image connected with Margaret Thatcher is the one conjured up by François Mitterrand, president of France from 1981 to 1995. When briefing his new European Minister Roland Dumas, he described Mrs Thatcher as having “les yeux de Caligula et la bouche de Marilyn Monroe” – “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe”. And that’s quite a legacy to leave.

 

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