Health · Word of the week

Word of the week: mole

The word “mole” has been on my mind for a while. I have a large, dark mole on my back, about 4” (10cm) above my beltline. It gets very itchy. I first showed it to my GP in 1997 and every few years since then have had it checked out. Four different general practitioners have seen it, each of them has said that it seems to be benign. Last week I had a “mole check” at a dermatology clinic here in West London. It’s fine, not malignant, not pre-cancerous, no action needed. If I choose, it can be removed, either cut out or burnt off, along with its three smaller companions.

Last week, writing about conjunctivitis, I mentioned Clive James and his era-defining TV reviews in the Observer in the early 1980s. He also co-hosted a TV show called Saturday Night People around the same time, with Russell Harty and Janet Street-Porter. There appears to be no record of this on IMDB. I recall him using the word “mole” often, in the sense of “a spy who becomes part of and works from within the ranks of an enemy governmental staff or intelligence agency”, to quote from this definition in For many of us our first exposure to this additional meaning of the word came from the 1979 TV adaptation of John Le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. Before that the word evoked the “small insectivorous mammals, especially of the family Talpidae, living chiefly underground, and having velvety fur, very small eyes, and strong forefeet”. (I quote, again from that definition on

Some years ago I was working on a project in a well-known part of the public sector (you’ll have heard of it, definitely). One morning there were posters in all the lifts, and displayed prominently elsewhere in the building, with the words “Mole Watch” in capital letters. Were there enemy agents in our midst? Had someone been leaking official secrets? No, nothing like that. There was a pop-up clinic coming up for anyone who wanted to have the moles on their skin checked out. A colleague told me of someone who had gone, and then been sent to have an offending blemish dealt with immediately. It wasn’t benign, it had to be removed without delay. It’s the kind of story that has gone through my mind whenever my 20-year-old mole started itching like crazy again, but I now have the all-clear from an actual dermatologist, so all appears to be well.


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