Aidan Smith: ‘Drama queen’ has been outlawed, ‘handbags’ too, so can I no longer call a footballer a ‘big jessie’?

This is a sad day for me. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and don’t really want to stop but the end would appear to be nigh. No more, I feel, will I be able to use the phrase “big jessie”.

A historical, pre-woke image of St Mirren and Ross County engaging in handbags when doubtless some of the Buddies thought the County man on the ground was being a drama queen.
A historical, pre-woke image of St Mirren and Ross County engaging in handbags when doubtless some of the Buddies thought the County man on the ground was being a drama queen.

For the footballer who didn’t fancy the tackle or the sudden flash-flooding or Ross County away on a Tuesday night in January or exorcising the cup hoodoo or the baying Copland Road end of Ibrox or anything, really, the description has seemed perfect. Rugby players, those supposed tough guys, haven’t escaped being called it.

I’ve never meant that the jessies in question were serial cowards. The term has been dished out light-heartedly - humour at the expense of those who haven’t quite shown the stomach for the immediate challenge.

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And I’ve certainly never meant it in a sexist way.

Is Lewis Ferguson being a drama queen? Leigh Griffiths might be thinking this, or he would have done before the BBC ruling outlawing the term

The other day football pundit Steve Thompson was suspended by the BBC for calling a scuffle between two players “handbags”. He also described another player as a “drama queen” and has now been sent for retraining.

Thompson’s language, the Beeb said, “didn’t meet the standards we expect”. There has been no mention of anyone being offended by his remarks so not for the first time in this woke age, Auntie has taken it upon herself to be offended for those who a) have run out of Basildon Bond writing paper; b) can’t get through to the Corporation switchboard; c) are definitely angered and/or upset by the phrases but, well, are being a bit jessyish about admitting as much.

Who are the likely offendees - women? A straw-poll of women I know (wife, sisters, boys’ football and ballet class mums) reveals the level of distaff outrage to be precisely … nil. No one believes we’re right back in the Cosmo editorial conference-room during the torrid sex wars of the 1970s just because a confrontation on the football field is mockingly compared to - what? - a queue for the January sales becoming a bit unruly. They just think it’s funny.

Similarly, there is no issue with “drama queen”. “I use it myself,” says one of my survey sample. “About men, obviously, which is very enjoyable, but women, too.”

Or is it those prone to histrionics who the BBC think would be offended? Self-obsessed types who shriek about every minor disappointment as if it were a global tragedy, even if they’ve never quite flounced out of an amateur operatic society after being overlooked for the part of the jolliest sailor in the summer production of HMS Pinafore?

I wonder what Julie Welch would make of all this. She was the first female football reporter on a UK national paper, but not without a struggle, having encountered real, grudgeful sexism and not the kind which the Beeb think is bubbling away in the cranium of the hapless Steve Thompson.

In her recently-published - and terrific - memoir The Fleet Street Girls (Trapeze) she recalls her first assignment, Coventry City vs Tottenham Hotspur in 1973, and arriving at the press-box: “It’s all a bit school-desky, except that mine is between those of two middle-aged men. I hope they don’t mind having to sit next to The Woman.

“I squeeze my legs together to avoid any accidental side-swipe of the thighs. ‘Hello,’ says one. ‘Come to do the women’s angle, have you?’ ‘Ha ha ha,’ I trill politely. T**t. Then comes a loudly penetrating voice from the row behind me. ‘Women in the press-box. So it’s come to that.’ ‘Appalling,’ murmurs his companion.”

Welch, reporting for The Observer for a fee of 12 guineas, stews quietly for a while but can contain her anger no more. “I remember how I wanted to howl with frustration all through my growing up, at how limited the options were for girls … at how if you wanted to do something new or different then you’d be called overambitious or unfeminine.

“Why shouldn’t a woman be a sportswriter? Sport is for everyone. It’s playing, it’s belonging, it’s great deeds and huge emotions, it’s a natural expression of being human, part of life. I’ve been given the chance to show what women are capable of and I’m not going to let a dinosaur get in my way.”

Welch is 72 and if this doesn’t sound too presumptuous, ageist and all the rest, I would suggest she isn’t offended by “handbag” and “drama queen” and may even have used them in her despatches. But perhaps not “big jessie”.

The origins appear to be Scottish/English Northern and maybe the southern equivalent is “big girl’s blouse”. Boris Johnson used that one on Jeremy Corbyn and is also fond of “girly swot”. But given that the Prime Minister is notorious for not reading his briefing papers, this could apply to anyone in his government even remotely conscientious.

At least I’ve been particular about using “big jessie”. I don’t just throw the phrase around; the performances have to be especially underwhelming, apologetic and, yes, knicker-wettingly timid to merit it.

Scanning the files, the phrase turns up often in articles bearing my name. Crikey, almost as regularly as prog-rock references. What can I say? Sometimes nothing else will do. I’m a Hibs fan, after all.

But it’s not always been uttered by me; sometimes my subjects have used it. Neale Cooper did to illustrate Alex Ferguson’s fearsome rigour and Tom Smith, the try-scoring hero of Scotland’s last victory at Twickenham in 1983, did to illustrate Jim Telfer’s fearsome rigour.

There are two men with little tolerance for faint hearts, sick notes and the weak-willed. I’ve changed my mind: the big jessie cannot die!

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