AJP sent me a link to this Guardian story by Alan Rusbridger and said he had been unfamiliar with the phrase that leaps out at the reader from the first sentence: “The Rt Rev Richard John Carew Chartres exuded an aura of benign ecclesiastical calm having performed the most dramatic reverse ferret in modern church history.” He pointed me to this Wikipedia article for an explanation; since it’s short and pungently written (and since I’m afraid some power-crazed administrator will edit it into blandness or simply delete it for “non-notability”), I’ll just quote the whole thing:

Reverse ferret is a phrase used predominantly within the British media to describe a sudden volte-face in an organisation’s editorial line on a certain issue. Generally, this will involve no acknowledgement of the previous position.
The term originates from Kelvin MacKenzie’s time at the The Sun. His preferred description of the role of journalists when it came to public figures was to “stick a ferret up their trousers”. This meant making their lives uncomfortable, and was based on the northern sport of ferret legging (where contestants compete to show who can endure a live ferret within their sealed trousers the longest). However, when it became clear that the tide of public opinion had turned against the paper’s line, MacKenzie would burst from his office shouting “Reverse Ferret!”

There’s so much concentrated goodness there I couldn’t withhold it from my loyal readers. (Naturally, the assertions are properly footnoted in the original article, to which I refer interested parties for references should they wish them.)


  1. I’ve now imported the article to the English Wiktionary, where “notability” is not a consideration: “attestation” and “idiomaticity” are sufficient. (Admittedly, neither “attestation” nor “idiomaticity” has quite the meaning at Wiktionary that a non-Wiktionarian would expect, but they’re not too far off.)

  2. I will now wait on tenterhooks over the next few weeks for my first opportunity to suddenly ejaculate “Reverse ferret!”

  3. I’d be interested to know if any British listeners have heard this ferret expression. I’m beginning to think Alan Rusbridger’s made the whole thing up, including the Wikipedia entry.

  4. I’ve heard it, I think from a journalist on the telly.
    I won’t bore you with tales of my childhood experiences with ferrets, save to say that the fierce wee buggers are never getting anywhere near my trousers.

  5. Yes, me too. I’m quite familiar with it, probably through reading Private Eye, I think.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Never heard it until now, but then I’ve been living outside the UK for nearly 25 years. How about you, AJP: how long have you been an ex-patriate?

  7. Thirty-five years. I’ve lived much longer abroad. I think it’s hereditary in my case; six generations of us on my mother’s side have lived mostly abroad, currently including all my cousins, only returning to England to breed.

  8. J. W. Brewer says

    I was struck by Bishop Chartres describing Archbishop Williams as “an intellectual of European standing.” In the relevant dialect of British English, is that a compliment or a studied insult? Although +Londin’s further noting that while he might not share +Cantuar’s views of the fine details of tax policy, the two of them would nonetheless always have an appreciation for Anthony Khrapovitsky in common, is all sorts of awesome.

  9. only returning to England to breed
    The word “anadromous” comes to mind, but maybe “diadromous” is better.

  10. It does look like this is in use in the UK. Search on google for “reverse ferret” (in quotes) and you get roughly 47000 hits. The Guardian is the second link and goes so far as to define the term, which does suggest that it’s not that common.
    This post is the third link.

  11. Trond Engen says

    I didn’t know reverse ferret. Immediately it reminded me of the Norwegian kuvending “cow’s turn”, but that usually refers to a public change of opinion or policy, especially by a politician after pressure from the opposition, the public, or a powerful lobby.
    Surely, the most famous reverse ferret of them all would be Le Moniteur’s series of headlines greeting the escape from Elba and return to power of Napoleon.:

    “The Corsican monster has escaped.”
    “The usurper has landed in France.”
    “Gen. BONAPARTE is at Grenoble.”
    “NAPOLEON is at Lyons.”
    “The Emperor is at Paris.”
    “Vive l’Empereur.”

    It’s found in diverse and dispersed versions on the ‘Net- This one is from New York Times’ liveblogging of the American Civil War. Maybe it’s time somebody did an actual check on the story.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Of course, if St. Paul’s were to change its policy on the anti-City demonstrations, «seek new direction», that would be a classic kuvending.

  13. “an intellectual of European standing” would be a jibe in England, a compliment in Scotland.

  14. Or do I mean a “gibe”? Not a gybe, anyhow.

  15. J. W. Brewer says

    Whatever else one might say about the Bishop of London, he’s certainly no Scotsman.

  16. Thank the Lord.

  17. According to Wikipedia, Khrapovitsky was Bishop Antony of Chaboksari in 1898.

  18. he’s certainly no Scotsman
    St Cedd was a Northumbrian Bishop of London. He was unafraid to confront the powerful, according to Bede.

  19. But a Northumbrian is no true Scotsman.

  20. (I’m sure I could make a joke involving kilts and cods if I’d had more coffee.)

  21. Well, I was only talking about the non-Scottishness of the incumbent Bishop of London, not making any claim about the characteristics of Bishops of London as a class. The current Archbishop of Canterbury happens to be a Welshman, although that has not been historically customary. I think I may have figured out which aspect of Metr. Anthony Khrapovitsky’s writing might have been of particular interest to the Anglican gentlemen in question, which is not the aspect of his life/work that I usually think of. But since this is not a soteriology blog, I’ll omit the details.

  22. Cosmo Lang was a Scotsman – not that anyone said he wasn’t.

  23. J. W. Brewer says

    Apparently Kelvin MacKenzie (the supposed originator of the “reverse ferret” concept) does not get on well with the Scots:

  24. Though he grew up in south London his Wikipedia entry has a link to Kelvin MacKenzie’s “Scottish family tree”. You’d have to pay £1 to a Murdoch paper to read it.

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