FLICKING through a packet of old photographs of the former Bishop Auckland MP Derek Foster for inspiration ahead of today’s memorial service, I was struck at how dapper he was.

In all but one of the Echo’s countless pictures of him, he is dapperly dressed in a pin stripe suit, tie, and shiny shoes. Even in 1979, when he first stood as a Parliamentary candidate, he was pictured at the wheel of a muddy dumper truck amid the destruction of a demolition site, waving at the camera, wearing a dapper suit and his favourite shirt which is cufflinked at the wrists. It is very much a shirt of the moment, with broad stripes on the collar and cuffs (fortunately the photo is in black and white so I can’t tell what colour the broad stripes are but I suspect shades of purple were involved).

It is undeniably dapper – but is dapper an appropriate word to use at a memorial service. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as meaning “elegant, neat and trim”, which was Derek to a tee, but then it adds: "Formerly appreciative; now more or less depreciative, with associations of littleness or pettiness."

So is it wrong nowadays to call someone dapper? Will people be offended if I refer to Derek as being dapper in this evening’s service?

Or perhaps I should take the word back to its roots. English adapted it in the mid 15th Century from a northern European language – Flemish, Dutch or German – where it meant “bold, strong, sturdy” or “brave, persevering, undaunted”. Derek really was dapper in its original sense.

AS well as pictures in the Lord Foster packet, there is a copy of his typewritten CV from the 1997 election when he was Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. On it, he notes that he had given a keynote address at Kensington Town Hall with Deputy Prime Minister Michael Hesletine to “400 mandarins and chief executives”. A little later, he notes that he had led “numerous seminars with mandarins, senior local government officers and business consultants”.

Intrigued, I discovered that the word “mandarin” entered English around 1580 as we were pushing in to China. It comes, though, from Malay, where a “mantri” was a minister of state.

In China, there were nine levels of public servants that the British called “mandarins”. They were selected by rigorous examination and their level was denoted by a coloured button on their headgear.

Some sources say that the mandarin orange, which was discovered in China, is the same colour as the silk robes that the mandarins wore, although it is more likely that the sweet orange was the choicest, the most select, like a high ranking mandarin.

But the dictionary notes that the meaning of this word has also changed over time. By the start of the 20th Century, it had come to mean a “jumped up person”.

So was Derek using the word with its original, respectful meaning, or had he seen through to the true nature of the tinpot plenipotentiaries of local government?

The Service of Thanksgiving and Celebration for the life of The Lord Derek Foster of Bishop Auckland begins at 6pm in St Andrew’s Church, Bishop Auckland, this evening.