The Great British Euphemism
Despite popular opinion, British people will often go out of their way to avoid being rude. Partly that’s because we’re a really polite people, but in the public area of life it’s also because the libel laws in the UK are draconian and people can be sued for publishing untruths about others if they are defamatory (just imagine if Fox News or The National Enquirer had to have some evidence that what they said were true!).
If I was to call you a bounder, or a cad, in private I’d probably be OK, if indeed I had good reason to believe you were a bounder. The worst I may walk away with is a bloody nose. I wouldn’t dream of saying such a thing in Parliament, and if I did so on video, published it on YouTube and you choose to sue me for doing so in the English (or Welsh) courts, it would be up to me to prove you were a bounder.
So, setting aside the thorny question of whether or not you are a bounder, a person might like to use euphemisms to describe your behavior or character, which sound perfectly innocent, but have an obvious undertone. Saving an expensive lawsuit, but making clear to everyone what I thought of you.
So where does “tired and emotional” come in?
Tired and Emotional
The phrase “tired and emotional” is accepted in the British Isles as meaning drunk. It differs from being “a bit merry” or “in good spirits”, both meaning under the influence of alcohol, in that “tired and emotional” usually means drunk and incoherent at a time when the person should have been expected to be sober.
A group of young people singing on the bus after a few drinks might me a bit merry, a middle aged aunt talking loudly, but politely, at a dinner party could be in good spirits, but an actor promoting a new film on a talk show could easily be tired and emotional.
The origin of the phrase is unknown, but it first came to public attention the night of the assassination of President Kennedy (London is 6 hours ahead of Dallas). The Cabinet Minister, George Brown, was called upon for comment, interviewed live on TV. He’d known Kennedy, and was perhaps the closest UK politician to him, so the obvious go-to guy for comment.
Unfortunately he was drunk, and had already had a scuffle with someone before the cameras rolled. The interviewer asked a question, and Brown answered in slurred words, proving difficult to interrupt. As it was such a big news story and there were only two TV channels in the UK at the time, a large proportion of the public saw the Cabinet Minister drunk, yet he was reported in the following day’s print media as being “tired and emotional”. Everyone knew what that meant, but he couldn’t sue anyone as it was fair to say he was both tired (it was late) and emotional (Kennedy had just been shot).
Tired and Emotional as a Secret Code
Veteran BBC journalist John Simpson used the phrase “tired and emotional” to convey a message, shibboleth style, to British people that he knew English speakers from other nations, and speakers of English as a second language would not notice and therefore would not censor.
Simpson is something of a character, having entered Afghanistan in 2001, ahead of troops, dressed in a burqa to disguise himself as an Afghan woman. No mean feat as he’s over 6″ tall. He’s deaf in one ear after being caught up in enemy action in Iraq. He’s a journalist who likes to get into the heart of the action.
In 1999 when the former Yugoslavia was in turmoil with civilian populations being massacred along ethnic lines Simpson was in Belgrade, getting interviews with party leaders, trying to get to the heart of what was happening. He’d interviewed key people but the local censors wouldn’t allow him to send the report out of the country, it was too inflammatory, it gave too much away about the state of some of the leadership.
Simpson agreed to re-edit the report, sticking to the facts and replacing video footage with still photographs. When he got to talking about Vuk Draskovic, a minister sacked by President Milosevic a few days earlier Simpson said “When he is not tired and emotional, Vuk Draskovic is a shrewd political observer.” The censors passed the story as there was no indication of drunkenness in the report, yet everyone in the UK knew what he meant when the BBC broadcast it.
Did You Call Me a Bounder or a Cad, You Scoundrel?
I certainly did not, but if we were to get technical for a moment a bounder, cad or scoundrel is male, so no women need apply. Both cads and bounders rely on their charm and whilst they may do some things that are not quite the ticket, they’ll likely get away with it, with just a touch of social opprobrium to show for it. Scoundrels however, are beyond the pale (another phrase from the history of the British Isles).
A Cad is generally a gentleman, someone who has grown up with money and in the right social circles, but who plays rather fast and loose with the emotions of ladies. He might spend more than a long weekend at your country house, giving every impression that he plans to marry your daughter, even spending time with her alone in the gardens, or monopolizing her attention at a ball, but then skedaddles, having made no promises, with your daughter’s reputation in tatters.
A Bounder may do the same thing, but you should know better than to let him, he has not grown up with the right influences or been to the right schools. He might beat everyone at cards and keep the money, he may even encourage you to invest in a scheme. He’s likely charming and fun to be with, but really, you should have known better than to have trusted him.
A Scoundrel is an altogether worse sort. He may go so far as to make his way into your daughter’s bedroom with no intent of marriage, he may have you invest in an opportunity that turned out not to exist. He may even make off with the silver. Do let your friends know, he’s not to be received.
Catch up with Downton Abbey to make sure you have an old-style English insult available for every occasion.