Wednesday, July 12, 2006

"Your mum is a terrorist whore"...

...the words Marco Materazzi allegedly spoke to Zinedine Zidane, moments before getting butted in the chest by an international legend turned demented billygoat. Whatever happened to "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me"?

In a great article in today's Guardian, Stuart Jeffries looks at the background to "your mum" insults and asks why certain types of abuse are viewed as grossly offensive in certain cultures and societies. It's a well researched article with some good background from Deborah Cameron and discussion of "the dozens" and "yo momma" games in the USA. It even quotes from one of my favourite rap tracks of the 1990s, The Pharcyde's Yo Mama and one of my favourite comedy sketches, Newman and Baddiel's History Today professors ("You see your bike; it's a girl's bike. It's for girls.").

The article contains rude words, so don't let your mum catch you reading it. Oh I forgot, she can't catch you reading it: she's out buying crack/selling her body/eating food from bins (delete as inappropriate).

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
EA4C - Language Investigations

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Institute for Domestic Incarceration Survivors

What's wrong with being a housewife? I can think of plenty of things to do with the "job" itself, but The Women's Institute has been discussing the word instead.

According to an article in The Guardian last month "Progressives argue that the word - meaning a woman who keeps house - is outdated and derogatory. Traditionalists are furious and adamant that even discussing the matter is the result of political correctness". Elsewhere, Jane Shilling in The Times suggests that women should reclaim the word: "It’s been done successfully for “nigger” and “queer”, those terms of vile insult turned into triumphant badges of identity. Why not for housewife? Go on, ladies, say it aloud: I’m a housewife, and I’m proud".

In a separate article from The Times, the connotations and marketabilty of the term are considered: "Barbara Littlewood, a lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University, feels the change is necessary if the organisation is to survive. “The use of the term housewife could well be putting off the younger generation and even those in their 40s,” she said, adding that it had connotations of being forced to stay at home darning socks and could be seen as harking back to the 1950s when men were the sole breadwinners".

So what's wrong with the word and what might its alternatives be? Free Dictionary defines it as "A woman who manages her own household as her main occupation" while a search on Wikipedia redirects you straight away to an alternative term "homemaker" and describes it as "a person whose prime occupation is to care for their family and home. The term homemaker is used in preference to either housewife or househusband because it is inclusive, defines the role in terms of activities, rather than relation to another, and is independent of marital status. The terms stay-at-home mother and stay-at-home father are also used".

Even looking at the standard defintions of the word as derived from "hus" + "wif" isn't the whole story, as the word "wif" has drifted in meaning over time from "woman" to "married woman". And a look at Etymology Online flags up an even more damning drift: the word "hussy", once a shortened version of housewife, now means something much more pejorative: "Gradually broadened to mean "any woman or girl," and by 1650 was being applied to "a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior," and a general derogatory sense had overtaken the word by 19c."

It's a blooming minefield of semantic shifts and derogatory connotations. So, what are the alternatives if you're not married to the house? "Homemaker", as suggested by many feminists, just makes me think of sweaty-arsed builders waving England flags from their white vans. Maybe that's just me. Various spoof Political Correctness guides use the term "domestic incarceration survivor" to relate the experience of "keeping house" (uurgh) to a prison sentence. But what of the "progressives" in the W.I. themselves? "Homecraft" seems to be their favoured alternative, but quite how that switches from being an abstract noun to being a term that can be used as a title is unclear, and might lead to all sorts of clunky formulations such as "homecraft practioner", "homecraft engineer" and "homecraft bod". Anyone for "domestic goddess"?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

5-times-a-night-Tony Blair & Margaret Thatcher in stockings

If either of the images in the title of this post make you feel queasy, you're not the only one. So imagine what it was like for poor David Cameron, fresh-faced new leader of the decidedly ancient Tory Party, when Jonathan Ross asked him a peresonal question about his sexual fantasies as a young lad.

And according to a report a couple of weeks ago in The Guardian, Britain's political discourse took a further downward turn when it was revealed that during a cabinet reshuffle, Margaret Beckett's response to being offered a new post was one word - the f-word.

Two different articles in two different newspapers offer two very different takes on these stories. In The Times, Minette Marin argues that these incidents are part of a radical coarsening of political language, while in The Guardian, Mark Lawson argues that swearing is a means of expressing rebellion against the constraints of the dominant culture of political soundbites, that in a way it's a response to the shackles of New Labour speak.

But it's also interesting to look at Marin's wider argument. As she says,

In a few years culture has become so hyper-sexualised that in order to speak demotic you need to talk dirty — or at least politicians and celebrities think you do. They feel the way to appeal to the voter or the punter is to pepper what you say with sexy words and sexy allusions, because that’s what most voters and punters increasingly do themselves.


There was a time in this country when only the working classes and the upper classes went in for effing and blinding and swearing like troopers, and not all of them. The respectable middle classes didn’t swear or talk dirty at all. Something changed in the 1960s; would-be left-wing intellectuals felt that to show solidarity with the masses they should talk like them. Hence student mockney, hence a fashion for swearing and talking dirty. Middle-class guilt made students feel they shouldn’t talk in the mannerly tones of middle-class privilege. This has persisted and spread.

So, it would appear that Marin believes our politicians are increasingly accommodating their language: downwardly converging to the vernacular they believe their target voters speak.

A quick look at this post from last month - Voice of the people - should give you a bit more background on this too, but the whole topic looks like a pretty good Language Investigation to me...

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigation