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August 10, 2016

For reasons that will become apparent to viewers of BBC2 next year, I have spent much time these last few weeks dressed up in three-piece suits with accoutrements of braces, collar-studs, cuff-links, tie-pins, gloves and hats; and the effect has been to make directors and others involved in the production say “You’re looking very dapper today, Brandon!” or “Wow, you look incredibly dapper!” – not just once but on a practically daily basis.

They mean it as a compliment, no doubt, but it does not feel like a compliment when you are on the receiving end of it. Dapper. It’s a funny word. It’s another of those gender-specific adjectives: women can’t be dapper. And when used of men it always suggests a certain attitude. I don’t think I am being paranoid when I say it carries a whiff of condescension. (Would anyone tell an Emperor, for instance, that he looked “dapper”?) To me it suggests that someone is self-consciously, almost comically well-dressed, in a departure from their normal appearance; it doesn’t connote admiration, as dashing, elegant, or stylish would. I also think there’s a hint that the dapper man is of small stature (as in the Elvis Costello song “Little Palaces”, where he sings “There’s a dapper little man and he wears a waxed moustache”); and since I am rather small, that particular cap fits.

Am I being over-sensitive? Maybe. But I’ll stop being over-sensitive when people stop calling me dapper.

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  1. Funnily enough, dapper means “brave” in Dutch.

  2. Ah – didn’t know that. Thanks!

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Would “chic” be the female equivalent?

  4. I think ‘chic’ is more complimentary.

  5. Simon Carter permalink

    You’re right; it’s also more upmarket. Maybe “debonaire” covers the middle ground. The French seem more interested in this sort of thing. Does anyone still use “natty”? One of the difficulties in learning English must be that there are so many words native speakers understand without being able to completely define. I think I understand what Americans mean by “toney” but I’m not sure I could easily define the term.

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