Wednesday, February 21, 1996


YOU could be forgiven for thinking that "attitude," like Ben Elton, Janet Street Porter and Network 7, glugged down the big plug hole of the 1980s so long ago that there is little point getting all upset about it now. You could be forgiven, but you would still be wrong.

The word "attitude", which travel led from Latin, to Italian, and on into French and English originally suggested some special skill or aptitude, or a certain grace in the execution of a figure in a painting. To strike an affected pose was consequently "to attitudinise". In ballet, the word is still used for two of the possible variations on a pirouette.

This definition of the word, suggesting communicating through posture, would appear to persist in African American English. According to Geneva Smitherman's black lexicon, Black Talk, "attitude", or "tude" is either Ban aggressive, arrogant, I know I'm bad pose or air about oneself, or "an oppositional, negative outlook or disposition". Prof Smitherman goes on to suggest that white mainstream culture's use of the word "attitude" has been adopted she calls it a crossover" from the black community.

In any case, all these definitions tend to miss out on the positive aspects of the word, for, at its best, "attitude" represents a furious challenging of assumed values and all those who espouse them. This great tradition of "attitude" so beloved of Art forum rock critic, Greil Marcus would run from Baudelaire, to the Situationists, to Johnny Rotten, but would noticeably lack any representative from the 1990s.

With the rise of personality testing and market research, the detection of "attitude" became a professional activity. There remained, nevertheless, plenty of room for the enthusiastic amateur. Schoolteachers in particular always seemed prepared to join in the glorious hunt at a moment's notice. When hard pushed to discover any reprehensible activity to underscore his or her prejudices against a child, the troubled teacher could always remark the presence of "the wrong attitude".

Perhaps it is this schoolroom use of the word that has, paradoxically, influenced copywriters to posit attitude" as a suitably containable aspiration for the young. Iarnrod Eireann, for example, has recently used the word as the bait to hook the youthful consumer of transportation services.

Its campaign, "Travel with Attitude", suggests that to enjoy travelling by trains because they're green" shows a great deal of "attitude". This is "attitude" in the current sense, that is, pointless, sterile, politically inert and wilfully dumb. Old fashioned travelling with attitude that is to say aggressive criticism, putting feet on seats, talking back to the conductor is not, of course, encouraged by the campaign.

Attitude's most surprising comeback of nil has been in ITV's new strand of late night television, which goes, apparently unironically, under the banner "Television with Attitude". This strand of programming includes shows from copper with attitude, John Stalker, TV critic with attitude, Gary Bushell, agony aunt with attitude, Toyah Wilcox, and attitude with attitude, Katie Puckrik. (On one recent show, Puckrik displayed what was presumably performing" with attitude when she drank a green cocktail from the chilly penis of an immense nude male sculpted in ice.)

An Observer fashion spread of just this week informs readers that various items of clothing are worn with attitude... by 18 year old actress Charlotte Clements. A glance here reveals, finally, the nuts and bolts of "attitude". Ms Clements is apparently experiencing tremendous difficulty maintaining her head in an upright position, an inability to bring the upper and lower jaw together and seems to be engaging in a struggle even to keep her eyes from falling shut. In short, this proponent of "attitude" exhibits all the outward indications of a being on the verge of deep sleep.


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