H, a girl I’ve been going out with for three months, tells me I’m a cad. It’s a running joke. Or it is for her and her friends. I contest it, particularly the implication that I treat women badly, but they insist that it doesn’t mean that. A cad, they say, is merely a rake with a suspiciously self-confident manner with women.
Their definition doesn’t match the one in the dictionary, but values do seem to be different in their adopted city of Bristol. I didn’t think that Bristol was all that different from London until recently, when H said that most of her friends had snogged about four people in their adult lives before settling down to get married. To them I must seem like Face from The A-Team.
Anyhow, during one session of impugning my character it was suggested that I could be a bounder instead. I wasn’t keen. So far as I knew it meant the same thing. No, H said, a bounder is a low-life who uses his charm to pretend he is more of a gent than he is, while a cad is a high-status rascal who ought to know better. Or, to put it another way, H believed that a bounder is a pseudo-gent while a cad is a crypto-gent.
It’s an interesting interpretation, but doesn’t have any basis in etymology. There is no longer a distinction between “cad” and “bounder”, and it’s debatable whether there ever has been. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of bounder is “an ill-bred person; a cad”. Its definition of cad is “a vulgar, ill-bred person; a person guilty or capable of ungentlemanly behaviour; a blackguard”.
The origins of the words also suggest that they have always been interchangeable. Bounder probably comes from the notion of someone who strays outside the bounds of behaviour expected in polite society, although it has also been attributed to a person attempting to bound into a higher social circle. Cad comes from cadet; it was a reference to servants, and a snobbish term used by students to distinguish town boys from gowned ones in university towns. Both cads and bounders, therefore, had connotations of low-status individuals aiming high.
Both words seem to have lost their low-status origins. Alan Clark, the late Tory minister, is for many people the archetypal cad and was certainly of high status. He is also commonly referred to as a bounder.
The most notable attempt to distinguish between the two words was made by the late Queen Mother in her description of Lord Boothby, the almost impossibly raffish peer who conducted a homosexual affair with one of the Kray twins and a heterosexual one with Harold Macmillan’s wife. To the Queen Mother, he was a “cad but not a bounder”. It is unclear what she meant, but she evidently thought that the former was preferable to the latter.
Perhaps she thought that bounders are acutely aware of their lack of social status while cads don’t care whether they have any or not, but if this meaning was ever commonplace it seems to have been lost.
The principal problem with suggesting that the words have different meanings is that they are commonly paired in descriptions of men as “a cad and a bounder”, which have been around for at least 50 years (including by Agatha Christie, in Back Numbers, in 1954). It cannot be that one means a crypto-gent and the other means a pseudo-gent because those definitions are mutually exclusive.
The two words have become one. And I’m neither.