"We are proud..." Are they really?

Written by Wordsmith on .


I am becoming very worried about the use of the word 'proud'.  When I was learning carpentry at school, 'proud' referred solely to a piece of wood that showed above its rightful place.  

A bit later in my education I was introduced to the extraordinarily fierce opening two lines - full of staccato single syllable words - of one of John Donne's 'Holy Sonnets':  "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so..."

Now 'proud' has been taken over by the sponsorship industry: "Banks Soaps are proud to sponsor the egg and spoon race".  And in an increasingly irritating way it has also become common currency in statements by politicians.

Do sponsors need to be 'proud' about what they are doing?  Do we not get a clear hint of self-reflected-glory in this use of the word?  So the banner might as well read: "Aren't we good/noble/caring to be sponsoring the egg and spoon race? You should be proud of us."

They could say "Smythe's Jam Butties and Co are glad to be able to sponsor...." or "...pleased to sponsor..." even "...delighted to sponsor..." or more straightforwardly  "Smythe's Jam Butties & Co hope you enjoy the egg and spoon race which we have sponsored this year."  

But 'proud', let's admit it, however self-regarding it often sounds, is a short word and fits nicely on banners and advertisements.  

Not all sponsorship attracts the "proud to be" accolade.  I do not remember seeing the phrase on those notices on town roundabouts:   "Joe's Garden Gnome Centre is proud to sponsor the third roundabout past the filling station on the ring road if you're going clockwise" - does not have much of a ring to it.

The word 'proud' is perilously close to 'pride', which has had a very long life of its own as one of the Seven Deadly Sins and, of course, 'comes before a fall'.  So think very carefully before you are tempted to use its neighbour word 'proud'.

There are many perfectly legitimate, proper and appropriate instances where 'proud' is the right word - le mot juste.

The mother of a young girl who reports abuse by an older man can certainly say:  "I am so proud of my daughter."   We can all be proud of serving men and women who face danger on our behalf - though saying it too often may begin to devalue that sentiment.  I am proud of lots of members of my family - and it never hurts to tell them so, if they are there to tell...

But what on earth did the outgoing head of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, have at the back of her mind when she said of her successor:  "I am proud to be succeeded by such a brilliant young barrister..."   That carried a definite sub-text of pretty heavy self-congratulation.

We should all check very carefully when politicians chuck the word 'proud' around with almost daily abandon. 'Proud' may just be covering up some dodgy policy, dubious claim or belief or a shaky alliance.

Take for example James Gray (MP for North Wiltshire) responding to the government's decision to use MOD land in Corsham for its new £40million cyber centre.  He is reported as saying he is "...proud to see the area making a useful contribution to the defence of the realm."  Odd, but odder still since Corsham is not in his constituency.  Never mind that - 'area' will do instead of 'constituency' and, after all, he is 'proud' - isn't he?

Checking Hansard's debates in the Lords and Commons since May 2010 I find 10,246 spoken uses of the word 'proud'.  Five of those belong to the Prime Minister in one seven line answer at Prime Minister's Questions in February 2015.  These included "...We can be proud of the fact that we are building two aircraft carriers" - where 'proud' hides the fact we won't have the planes to fly from them.

The more politicians use the word the more we should question their motives for using it.  If I were to become the leader of some new political party (no thanks!), I would insist my members rationed their use of the word.  Furthermore they would have to pay a forfeit every time they used it.  And, much as I value free speech, I would try and legislate for such forfeits across the political spectrum.

So if Nick Clegg announced:  "I am proud to have introduced the pupil premium,"  he would then - by way of forfeit - have to own up to an 'ashamed'  (e.g. "I am ashamed of the coalition government's bedroom tax")  before he was allowed to claim another  "I am proud..."

That would get 'em pondering whether 'proud' ever quite hits the right note in a political setting.