Friday, September 29, 2006

Island apes, white ghosts and poms...

...all words used to describe British people, apparently. The focus of a couple of recent articles in The Guardian and The Mirror has been on the use of the word "pom" by Australians to describe British people, and whether or not it's a racist term.

There are various theories about the word "pom" - some arguing that it's from Prisoner Of Her Majesty and others that it's short for the fruit pomegranate and describes the bright red colour pasty white Brits turn when they get sunburnt - but most agree that if it's an insult it's hardly as bad as "paki" or "wog".

So what makes a word offensive? An anti-racist saying from some twenty years ago was "power + prejudice = racism". If you have no power in society, you might be prejudiced in your attitudes, but it's only when you've got the power to apply that prejudice that it truly becomes racism. It's a partially persuasive argument and one that might explain why terms like "honky", "cracker" and "gora" don't really carry the same power as terms like "paki", "nigger" and "jewboy".

But is it the whole story? Perhaps the most offensive words have a history that develops like a snowball effect, which means that they pick up more and more negative associations over time and just keep getting worse. Maybe some of these words are linked to such barbaric times in history that their meanings are forever unpleasant.

While you're pondering that, take a look at the range of imaginative and descriptive terms applied to white British people by their friends around the world.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shoot the Puppy

In a great article from The Daily Telegraph over the summer, William Leith takes a detailed look at the language of IT workers and office staff, or what he calls New Office. To help him he uses Tony Thorne's new guide, Shoot the Puppy which gives definitions for the weird and bizarre language of the office (e.g. "having a salmon day" means to have worked hard, swimming upstream all day, only to be shafted at the end if it all).

So shooting the puppy is all about ultra-macho decision-making, several steps beyond 'grasping the nettle’ or ‘biting the bullet’. In a corporate climate,where downsizing has become capsizing (‘capping’ staff numbers until there’s no one left to steer the ship) and rightsizing has given way to downclosing, the idea is often invoked negatively: ‘I’m not going to be the one to shoot the puppy; we’d better hire in a consultant to recommend the restructuring.’

As funny and interesting as some of the slang or jargon is in its own right, two things about the article are particularly helpful for English Language students . Firstly it looks at specific linguistic processes that create the words (blending , affixation, metaphor etc.) and secondly it links the new words to the context that created them and how the new words reflect the attitudes and culture of a given time. So, Leith and Thorne pick out a whole range of new expressions that seem to suggest many people involved in these types of jobs are deeply fed up with their bosses, dismissive of their clients' intelligence and working in an industry that they feel doesn't value them. In other words, the jargon and the metaphors behind the new words reflect an attitude.

In one class last week we tried to update a slang dictionary from Live magazine (linked to this article) which many people felt was now a little out of date. Words and phrases such as "bullet bullet bullet" (uttered when a boy dances in a way that might be perceived as "gay"), "written off" (used to refer to someone who's been knocked out or beaten up) and "boomy" (used as an adjective to express approval of a girl's appearance) came up as new versions of slightly older expressions such as "merked" (injured/beaten up) and "tick" or "choong" (attractive). Maybe "bullet bullet bullet" is an updated version of the old homophobic "boom bye bye" refrain from an old dancehall track.

Again, while it's interesting to see the speed at which language changes and how quickly slang terms are discarded and new ones adopted, it's the pattern of meanings that point to deeper links between language and society. Many slang terms relate to the physical appearance of women, attitudes towards different lifestyles and violence - sometimes a mixture of the three.

So, if business slang and jargon is all to do with feeling miserable in a world that doesn't value you, is life for urban youths all about chirpsing chicks, abusing gay people and beating up rivals from different endz (or something like that, anyway)? I suspect that's not the whole picture, so please discuss...

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

Sunday, September 03, 2006

War of Words

It's all kicking off between David Crystal (language guru) and Lynne Truss (lover of apostrophes) in today's Observer. Attacking Truss's "zero tolerance approach to punctuation" made famous in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Crystal accuses Truss of "linguistic fundamentalism".

For those of you unfamiliar with Truss and her work, Eats, Shoots and Leaves laments the sorry understanding English users have of their own system of grammar and punctuation. Truss explains the "rules" as she sees them and tries to educate her readers about things like the "grocer's apostrophe" (often seen on signs in markets advertising banana's and apple's) and the possessive apostrophe (the man's hat). It has become a best-seller which either tells you lots about how eager we are to learn more about grammar, or how sad we are for not knowing what else to buy Aunty Mildred for Christmas...

Anyway, back to the battle between Crystal and Truss. In the article, Crystal is quoted as saying "Zero tolerance does not allow for flexibility. It is prescriptivism taken to extremes. It suggests that language is in a state where all the rules are established with 100 per cent certainty. The suggestion is false. We do not know what all the rules of punctuation are. And no rule of punctuation is followed by all of the people all of the time".

Interestingly, one of Crystal's other targets, John Humphrys of Radio 4, responds by saying "'I think David Crystal is making a fundamental mistake when he says rules don't matter that much. I say they matter enormously. Take the example we always use on both sides of the debate: the apostrophe. It is either right or wrong. We wouldn't accept something being wrong in any other walk of life, would we?".

What Humphrys seems to miss is the fact that many of these rules are little more than the prejudices of language "experts" in the Eighteenth Century whose ideas gained credibility once they were written down and widely circulated. They're not rules that are set in stone for any logical reason; although some would argue that a few of these rules are there to avoid confusion in communication.

For more on this debate, have a read of the article and search for Aitchison as a key word in the tool bar at the top of this page. You might also want to have a look at the Michael McCarthy articles linked here or here. Or have a look at the previous debates sparked by Lynne Truss's book here.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates