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Page last updated at 13:51 GMT, Monday, 1 December 2008

When did 'grooming' become a dirty word?

Backstage at a dog show
Not this type of grooming

The Magazine answers...

Supporters of Damian Green are outraged at the use of the word "grooming" by police questioning the MP. They see this as provocative, with its connotations of paedophilia. Since when?

Grooming. In the past 20 years it has taken on a whole new meaning, and one which eclipses all other definitions bar the original reference to beautify oneself or one's steed.

While dictionaries note that it's been used for more than a century to mean preparing a successor, or coaching someone for a career or contest, today it commonly refers to child sex offenders.

1887: First used to mean prepare for specific career, role or contest
1985: First used in reference to paedophiles
'Groom' first recorded in 13th Century to mean 'boy' then 'man-servant'
By 17th Century applied only to someone who tended a horse
More recently used to mean recruitment of terrorists

It was the Chicago Tribune that first applied the definition to the methods of a paedophile, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In a 1985 story the paper reported: "These 'friendly molesters' become acquainted with their targeted victim, gaining their trust while secretly grooming the child as a sexual partner."

It's this pejorative meaning of the word that has outraged senior Conservatives commenting on the arrest of their front bench spokesman Damian Green MP.

They say police questioned Mr Green - the shadow immigration minister - and suggested to him he had not "simply received leaked" information but "groomed" a civil servant who had allegedly passed him 20 confidential documents. While the Ashford MP denies any wrong doing, and has not been charged, colleagues object to the loaded use of the word "grooming".

"Damian [Green] was very angry at this clear attempt to provoke him and did not reply," a senior party figure told the Times.

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"It's certainly a loaded term," says Cormac McKeown, senior editor of the Collins English Dictionary, who sees its use in connection with Mr Green as a new mutation in the evolution of the word.

"I can't find any usages yet that chime exactly with Mr Green's case, but one use that's quite similar relates to people being groomed for terrorism."

One such example in the Collins corpus - a database of real-life usages - has Eliza Manningham-Buller, then the head of MI5, saying in November 2006 that young British Muslims were being groomed to become suicide bombers.

"I can see how the word could be applied to someone who befriends another for a particular end. But the main usage in our corpus refers to preparing a successor," says Mr McKeown.

This meaning dates from the late 19th Century, he says.

Tony, centre, is a predatory paedophile targetting his stepdaughter in EastEnders
Tony, centre, is a predatory paedophile in EastEnders

But in 2003, Collins added a new entry to its definitions of grooming: "To win the confidence of (a victim) in order to a commit sexual assault on him or her."

While its first use in this context was in 1985, it became mainstream in the late 1990s. "It was with the advent of the internet that this usage took off," says Mr McKeown. This was when paedophiles using chatrooms to target potential victims first came to public notice.

And in the past few months, EastEnders has run the first soap storyline of a predatory paedophile, as Bianca's latest boyfriend Tony grooms her teenage daughter Whitney for sex.


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