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WORD OF THE WEEK: Proctor’s Bulldog

(n.) someone tasked with maintaining rules and keeping order

 (n.) someone tasked with maintaining rules and keeping order

When (or perhaps, if) the endless Saga of Brexit is finally consigned to the history books, like all good (or perhaps, bad) stories, some of its characters will emerge as heroes, while others will be denounced as villains. Liz Truss, meanwhile, will probably take the role of the clownish background comic relief. 

Precisely who you think should be assigned to those two camps is debatable, of course. But if you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you’re of the mind that those, say, currently in contempt of parliament, or who have been found guilty of misleading parliament (or, arguably worse still, have tacitly supported their rule-breaking colleagues while simultaneously reneging on their own principles) will not be seen as having fought for the right side of history. All those currently standing up for the likes of decency, compromise, common sense, the rule of law and the maintenance of all those other norms and standards we hold in high regard, meanwhile, will be looked on more favourably. 

Just as in all the great historical sagas, however, not all the heroes here will make it to the final chapter. And this week, arguably one of them finally withdrew from our story. 

After a decade in the Speaker’s Chair, John Bercow kept order in the House of Commons for the final time on Thursday. An eternally controversial and divisive character—whose reputation for long-windedness and forcefulness at times even rankled his supporters—there is little doubt that Bercow’s role in Brexit thus far has been an extraordinarily significant one. 

His blocking of the third meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Deal, for instance, could be said to have precipitated her eventual collapse from power. His decision to repeatedly hand control of the Commons timetable to back-benchers in recently months effectively shelved the risk of a ‘no-deal’ exit—an intervention without which we would likely have crashed out of the EU by default this week. And his recent blocking of a second vote meaningful vote on Boris Johnson’s rehashed Withdrawal Agreement has since forced the Prime Minister to change tack, and we’re now nervously heading for a pre-Christmas election. 

Such decisions, of course, have not proved popular with all parties. Even on his final day in the Commons, the Speaker fell into a heated exchange with the ERG’s Andrew Bridgen MP, who in characteristically erudite fashion accused him of misusing the “fag-end” of his parliamentary tenure. Predictably, Mr Bridgen did not escape the exchange unscathed. (If only someone had told him it’s unadvisable to start a war of words with someone known for their loquaciousness if you like to use expressions like “fag-end”.) 

To his critics, ultimately, Bercow has emerged throughout this process as a Remainer wolf in an impartial sheep’s clothing, who has heedlessly bypassed the boundaries of his role in the Commons to frustrate the Brexit process at every opportunity. To his allies, however, he has merely—and justifiably—reformed the role of Speaker for modern times, and stood to defend that which we were led to believe by ardent Leavers we long ago surrendered to Brussels: parliamentary sovereignty. 

All of which brings us to this week’s Word of the Week

Although we, of course, like to opt for a word from one of the more obscure corners of the dictionary, this week’s word will be instantly familiar to some—but utterly unheard of to many: a proctor’s bulldog is someone who persistently and tirelessly maintains order and the rule of law. 

If that’s an expression entirely new to you, you may well wonder why it would be so familiar to others. If you went to either Oxford or Cambridge University, meanwhile, it’s likely a word you will have heard time and time again. That’s because proctor’s bulldog began life an old Oxbridge nickname for a university officer charged with keeping order in and around campus. Proctors, tasked with various administrative and disciplinary duties, have been elected in the oldest universities since the Middle Ages, while sheriffs’ and bailiffs’ assistants have been nicknamed bulldogs since the 1600s at least. The two terms were first brought together and applied specifically to these university law-keepers in the mid-nineteenth century—with the Oxford English Dictionary’s first record of a proctor’s bulldog coming from Anthony Trollope’s 1869 novel Phineas Finn

The term remains much in use in and around Oxford and Cambridge, but ever since Trollope’s popularizing use of it in 1869, its application in the language has broadened to become more familiar outside of merely academic circles. In this looser sense, ultimately, the term stands as a nickname for anyone who doggedly—no pun intended—maintains law and order. 

Illustration by @Bread_and_Ink

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