I was thinking about a recent film I saw. It was about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and at one point he was talking about how he hadn’t enjoyed training as a doctor: ‘All those wretched patients,’ he said.
Hmm, I thought. Did he mean by this that the patients were in a wretched condition, or did he mean that he didn’t like them, as in ‘I hate all these wretched rules’?
I once heard somebody described as a “fucking virgin”, and another time a girl told me that she wouldn’t sleep with a man, adding “fuck him”. The dainty Roy Keane (whom I have always considered a latter-day Swinburne) once told the Ireland manager Mick McCarthy that he was a “fucking wanker” which would, if you think about it, be a remarkable feat of multitasking.
Words become expletives, voiding themselves of meaning, and then, as their fifteen minutes of rudeness passes, they get their meaning back. Dashed means something again. Nowadays only complexions are ruddy, heaths and cannons blasted.
A quick glance at the news makes me think that wretched now refers almost exclusively to those things characteristic of the outcast wretch.
So perhaps fucking virgins will one day be a puzzling oxymoron, we will move on to other, as yet undreamt of oaths and wonder why so many nouns of the twentieth century, even abstract ones, copulated.