Camilo José Cela with his wife in 2002. | EFE


There’s always a nice sense of achievement when I accidentally stumble on a new meaning of an old word. Well, new for me, that is. The latest one is ‘mudlark’ which I first came across in the 1950 film Mudlark that starred Andrew Ray, the 11-year-old son of Ted Ray, the music-hall comedian.

A mudlark in the late 18th century was a colloquial term for a street urchin or a messy person, especially a child. Most of us knew that because of the Mudlark film. But there’s another meaning which I didn’t discover until last week — and it was in the weekly magazine of El País, Spain’s best selling daily.

Since the mid-19th century a mudlark was also the name given to those who scavenge in the mud of the Thames at low tide. The first mudlarks were looking for coal and anything metal that could be sold to scrap merchants.

Until London’s sewage system was built in 1865, Londoners dumped their waste and anything they no longer wanted into the river. The Thames mud became the home of all kinds of items that are now highly desired collectors’ pieces.

The article in the El País magazine was about publisher Lara Maiklem who has been a Thames mudlark for the past 15 years and has written a book about her hobby called Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames in which she relates what she finds as she rakes about in the river mud. Some mudlarks have uncovered prehistoric fossils, Victorian bric-a-brac, medieval ceramics, ancient bottles, monocles, centuries-old buttons and even the occasional skull. Lara has dug up old Spanish coins, Greenland whale bones, Caribbean coral and clay pipes which were first made in the 16th century when tobacco smoking became popular.

The Port Authority keeps mudlarking under control. They issue annual permits and mudlarkers must let the London Museum know when they find an item more than 300 years old. You can follow Lara and her mudlarking activities on Instagram. Not so long ago it seemed the euphemism was becoming a thing of the past.

There was a moment when it appeared we were entering an age when we were calling everything by its real name.

But that was before political correctness took hold in America and then spread to Europe. We are now so squeaky clean it is taboo not only to refer to a black person as a spade, but also to call a spade a spade.

At a time when the treatment of cancer is in the news every week (sometimes because of hopeful breakthroughs in research) most newspapers still write that a person died ‘after a long illness’. The cancer word is still taboo.

Euphemisms become rife when politicians and military men give out statements. American military spokesmen were at their most verbose and as they introduced new euphemistic references almost every day during the Iraq war.

We learned that ‘aggressive patrolling’ meant soldiers could shoot at everything on sight. We were reunited with ‘friendly fire’ — being shot down or killed by those on your own side. With friends like that, you don’t need enemies. Military people all over the world, like civil servants, are inclined to be extremely verbose in their general use of language and their euphemisms are sometimes so long they have to be reduced to acronyms, of which their was an abundance during the Iraq war.

There was TPFDL (pronounced tip-fiddle) that meant ‘time-phased forces deployment plan’. Campaigners for the use of plain English, such as Sir Ernest Gowers (author of The Complete Plain Words in 1954 who always avoided euphemisms) would have said ‘the US battle plan’.

Another pronounceable acronym was KI/CAS (kick-ass) which meant ‘killbox interdictions/close air support’. For the layman, that was the region being bombed at that particular moment.

The English and the Americans are inclined to euphemise, which may be why poet T.S. Eliot (who was born in America but lived in England) said: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

But that wasn’t always the case. In days of yore, men not only called a spade a spade, they referred to it as a shovel. You just have to read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales to see the extent of bluntness in everyday language a few centuries ago.

Perhaps that is why euphemism is a relatively recent word. It wasn’t recorded until the mid-17th century when it appeared in Thomas Blunt’s Glossographia.

It must have been an underused word because just over 100 years later Dr Johnson didn’t consider euphemism important enough for inclusion in his Dictionary. Euphemisms are not peculiar to English — every language has them. Even so, the English and the Americans make more use of them than the Spanish or the French. Is it because the English-speaking world is more squeamish than other nations and “cannot bear very much reality”?

There is usually a direct relationship between general use of euphemisms and the inhibitive use of normal dictionary words for certain body functions.

The more taboo words a nation has, the more euphemisms the population uses: euphemisms are a way of avoiding words that cause us embarrassment.

The English (but not the Americans) are shy about using the everyday words that describe body functions (such as excretion) and avoid them by adopting much softer terms. But it’s not just what we do in the lavatory or the bedroom that causes awkward situations. All kinds of words are out of bounds and any attempt to use them instead of a euphemism can cause hullabaloo. Shaw caused a minor scandal when he used “not bloody likely” in his turn-of-the century Pygmalion. MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer allowed Clark Gable’s famous last words in the 1939 Gone with the Wind (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”) on the condition that the star stressed ‘give’ and not ‘damn’.

The BBC ban on the the F-word wasn’t broken until the early 1970s when writer and theatre critic Kenneth Tynan slipped it in during a live TV discussion programme. That caused another hullabaloo.

Spaniards are more down to earth on these matters and euphemisms are avoided. Although many Anglo-Americans still use euphemisms for ‘to die’ I have never heard a Spaniard use one: in Spain you die, you don’t ‘pass on’ or ‘pass away’. And when it comes to the equivalent of the F and C words, the Spanish are the least reticent nation I know of. Their four letter words are used on a daily basis and in just about every home. Even children as young as 8-12 do so in front of their parents. Indeed, to their parents.

A good example of the Spanish lack of inhibition over the use of the F-word was when novelist Camilo José Cela went to Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As he arrived at the ceremony venue, the door of his limousine was opened and a TV reporter thrust a microphone inside and asked: “How are you, Don Camilo?”

The elderly Cela, in his usual gruff and lugubrious voice, immediately replied: “Jodido, pero contento.” (F…ed, but happy). That scene, with the dialogue, was shown on the nine o’clock news in Spain. Can you imagine T.S. Eliot giving the same response when he picked up his Nobel Prize? And had he done so, do you think it would have been shown on the BBC nine o’cock news?