Royal occasions offer the pleasure of mass atavism, including the revival of antediluvian words and attitudes. As journalists and newsreaders constantly drool, Catherine Middleton is a ‘commoner’. When her wedding was announced, the word turned up in the Mail and the Telegraph, even – though in bet-hedging scare quotes – in the ‘liberal’ Guardian. The overseas press has been at it too. The other day, France 24 told its viewers that the prince was to wed a roturier; the Corriere della Sera said that he was marrying a borghese. It reopens neighbouring semantic fields, notably the use of ‘common’ to mean ‘not distinguished’, ‘vulgar, of plebeian origin, nature (derog.)’, as in ‘a common prostitute’, ‘common as muck’ and so on.
Perhaps journalists with copy to file on this vacuous topic only pretend to take seriously the idea that humans, like racehorses, can be sorted into thoroughbreds and also-rans. But it seems to be held in earnest by the Prince of Wales, who notoriously put his unflappable reaction down to ‘a thousand years of breeding’ when a prankster let off a starting-pistol near him during a visit to Australia in 1994. No doubt when on marriage the queen makes her fiancé Nardac of Gunderland, Ms Middleton will be able to leave her vulgar origins behind. Until then, in fact, Prince William counts as a commoner too, as he’s neither yet the sovereign nor a peer of the realm. But then if we go back a bit, we’re all the offspring of apes, some no doubt commoner than others.