Word of the week

Word of the week: Narg

Narg: it’s an acronym, for “Not a real gentleman”. It’s also the reason I know the word “acronym”, which describes a word that’s formed from the initials of other words, like NATO or AIDS. (I like how in other languages the same letters are used in a different order for both terms – OTAN and SIDA in the case of Spanish.)

Back in the autumn I explained the word Narg to my 9-year-old daughter, during some reminiscences about my university days. The definition on Urban Dictionary suggests that it probably originated in Cambridge, where I was studying, and that’s where I heard it, often. It was used by outdoor, public school types, chaps who wore brogues, brown corduroy trousers, striped shirts, yellow jumpers (or “lemon sweaters”) and Barbour jackets. They spent their weekends beagling and at point-to-point events (at which they would typically wear green Wellington boots), and some of them probably went hunting, shooting and fishing too. They used the word “Narg” to each other, as a form of “banter”, and also to describe people who were not like them.

The word came to mind this morning after my daughter’s experience at a classmate’s birthday party over the weekend. Unlike almost every other girl there she was not wearing pink, or a sparkly party dress. She gave up wearing dresses over a year ago, mostly in favour of football kits and jeans, although she did wear a traditional-looking white dress for her First Holy Communion last May (and then changed into her Arsenal away strip as soon as we got home for the party). And she also wore a skirt and top combination for the wedding we went to last May.

I asked her (light-heartedly) if she wished that she had been wearing a sparkly party dress too (no, she didn’t), and wondered if she felt as I did at one or two Cambridge drinks parties in my early 20s, dressed differently and behaving differently from nearly everyone else in the room. The language difference was also significant back then. Most “conversations” consisted of a few clipped syllables exchanged between the boys in the stripy shirts. At one party, around the time that most of them were going for interviews at the merchant banks that they would go on to work for, the standard form of greeting was to name the bank that they had just interviewed with and add the word “Narg” at the end. “Kleinwort-Benson Narg”, would be a typical opening, followed by “Warburgs Narg” or “Schroder Narg”. I was fascinated. This was a glimpse into a completely different world from my own.

During my time at Cambridge the proportion of students who came from state schools outnumbered the private school intake for the first time. (And, I’m glad to say, the numbers have increased. In the most recent intake there was a year-on-year rise in students accepted from state schools at Cambridge, as you can read here. For the same year there was a decline in the proportion of students accepted from state schools at Oxford, the university of choice for David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Make of that what you will.) Magdelene College Cambridge, which was all-male at the time, seemed to have the highest proportion of ex-public school, outdoor-loving Barbour-wearing types. But they still had their fair share of students from state schools. I heard a story about one of them, a plain-speaking chap from the north, who had had enough of their antics one night in the college bar. He had a go at them, along the lines of “I come in here for a quiet pint, after a hard day, and I have to put up with you bloody Green Welly Wankers, making bloody fools of yourselves, with your stupid bloody drinking games …” When he’d finished he stormed out, and was landed with a new nickname: “Outburst Narg”.


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