Feral: there’s a lot of it about, lately. The term has, of course, been a mainstay of Daily Mail headline writers for at least the past five years, prefaced in the early days by the fig-leaf “almost” but invariably followed by “youths” or, better still, “yobs”. Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, caused a bit of a Twitterstorm today by pairing it with the term “underclass” to refer to the people who took part in last month’s riots; London mayor Boris Johnson went one better, speaking of a “feral criminal underclass”.
Intriguingly, though, the word isn’t the exclusive property of the right. Tony Blair used it a few years back it to describe a vicious media beast, “tearing people and reputations to bits”. The tax campaigner Richard Murphy chooses it to identify a destructive, out-of-control global financial sector “existing way beyond the limits of the real economy” (or simply “feral bankers”, as John Prescott had it on Twitter today). Neal Lawson of the left-of-centre group Compass applied it to a corrupt British governing elite of bankers (again), media barons and politicians for whom “private interest takes precedence over public good”.
So what does it actually mean – and when is it appropriate? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “feral” has three meanings: “existing in a wild or untamed state”; “having returned to an untamed state from domestication”; and “of, or suggestive of, a wild animal; savage”. Importantly, the word is most commonly used in the second of those contexts, to describe domesticated animals that have left human society and control and now live on their own: we talk of populations of feral cats, for example.
And that’s the problem. In the sense of “abandoned by – or escaped from – society”, “living outside the mainstream”, “beyond the control of rules, regulations and accepted norms”, even “gone wild”, feral seems quite a reasonable choice of word to describe something big and faceless such as an economy, the media, or even, at a pinch, a powerful and privileged elite. But when you start applying it to people (youths, yobs), or to a disadvantaged group of people (an underclass), it’s somehow different. Then feral becomes, intentionally or not, dehumanising. Use it in that way and you’re comparing humans to animals. Which isn’t, can we agree, a very nice thing to do.