Mon 25 October 2021

(adj.) bitten by a spider

They say heroes come in all shapes and sizes. If you support Brexit, for example, your current hero likely comes in the form of the glabrous Machiavelli currently working the gears of 10 Downing Street—and whose supposed reputation for political shrewdness belies the fact that he’s now engineered the government’s seven consecutive defeats in the Commons. But if you’re against Brexit—or, rather more accurately this week, if you are merely for the rule of law and upkeep of the British constitution—then this week a new hero stepped into the frame. 

Perhaps the new hero of the cooler-headed side of this latest Brexit debacle comes in the unlikely form of Lady Hale, the hitherto-little-known 74-year-old female president of the Supreme Court. 

On Tuesday, eleven Supreme Court justices unanimously decided that Boris Johnson’s five-week prorogation of parliament was unlawful. The prorogation was ultimately declared null and void, and MPs duly returned to the Commons the following morning.

Alas, what happened next proved a less edifying chapter in our political history: Johnson and his roaring foghorn of an Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, set the tone for a fractious day’s debate by repeatedly offering no apology or contrition in their addresses to the House, and instead spent much of Wednesday ratcheting up the already seething rhetoric with soundbites about a “dead parliament”, a “surrender bill”, and considerably worse than that. Sadly the words of the calmer, more reasoned members of the House were either lost in the uproar, or shoulder-barged aside; if you were looking for a hero here, you’d either not be able to hear them, or be grimly found wanting. 


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On a more encouraging note, then, perhaps the new hero of the cooler-headed side of this latest Brexit debacle comes in the unlikely form of Lady Hale, the hitherto-little-known 74-year-old female president of the Supreme Court. 

Born in Yorkshire in 1945, Lady Hale was one of just six women out of more than a hundred law students who graduated from Cambridge in 1966. Called to the bar just three years later, she went on to become the first woman (and the youngest person ever) appointed to the Law Commission in 1984; was made professor of Law at Manchester University in 1986; was appointed Queens Counsel in 1989; became the first female Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 2004; the first female justice of the Supreme Court in 2007; and its first female president in 2017. Or, as the Daily Mail put it, she is a “former barmaid.” 

One thing the Mail did get right in their coverage of Lady Hale, however, was to note her unique sartorial flair: from a climbing tree frog to a huddled fox to a glitteringly bedazzled dragonfly, it’s fair to say Lady Hale has one extraordinary collection of zoological brooches. And when she delivered the Court’s excoriating ruling on the PM’s prorogation on Tuesday, she happened to be sporting a particularly eye-catching spider—which brings us to this week’s Word of the Week. 

To be ettercapped, or etter-copped, is to be stung or bitten by a spider. The word originated as variant of attercop, an Old English name for a spider that quite literally means “poison head”. Although spider (itself an Anglo-Saxonism, whose ancient roots literally mean “spinner”) eventually became the standard term, attercop survived for a time in a number of regional dialects of English, both in its original meaning and, more figuratively, as a nickname for a grumbling, peevish complainer. (The “cop” at the end of attercop, incidentally, also survives today as the “cob” in cobweb.)

It was in those dialects that attercop morphed over time into an array of curious variants, like ettercap, ethercop and adthercop; the adjective etter-capped—literally, “bitten by an attercop”—is first recorded in the early 1700s. 

And if you’re looking for an example of that, you can read more on the Supreme Court’s momentous ruling here

Illustration by @Bread_and_Ink 

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