Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Racial abuse

It may be a bit rich coming from The Sun, a newspaper which has been at the forefront of anti-asylum seeker campaigns, but it certainly makes for a striking front page. Yesterday's Sun featured a group of children, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, holding up signs showing terms of racist abuse that might be applied to them. Asking what they have in common, The Sun then reveals another picture a few pages on, which shows the same children holding up signs saying "British".

The editorial can be found here, and the children featured go on to tell how they've been called various racist terms in their lives. There's some brief background to each term of abuse and an editorial that bangs the drum for a shared sense of British identity among all of this country's ethnic groups. I'll leave you to decide what you make of the political message, but the article gives some good material for discussion of language and representation, not just in its coverage of racist terminology but in the wider debate about a label like "British" and its use in political discourse.

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ENA1 - Language & Representation

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

When's it OK to call someone a "c*nt"?

...when you're not calling them a "p*ki", apparently. Racist language is all over the front pages of the papers today as the Celebrity Big Brother row over Shilpa Shetty’s treatment by other housemates goes supernova.

Having bleeped out Jade Goody’s unfortunate boyfriend, Jack Tweed calling Shilpa a nasty four letter word, newspapers in India (Shilpa’s home country) started claiming that the bleeped out word was “p*ki”; Big Brother producers claimed it was actually only “c*nt”. So that’s alright then…

But the racism allegedly exhibited by the three main culprits (I say “alleged” as I don’t watch it) seems to be more than just a question of words. No one seems to be claiming that the three women at the centre of this – Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara – have actually used the p-word themselves, but that their ignorant and racist attitudes towards Shetty have been reflected in some of their unpleasant comments. Snide remarks about her touching their food, not cooking her food properly and having a strange accent, all seem to suggest that they view her as weird and alien, and probably a bit foreign and dirty. So what’s worse, using an offensive four letter word, or treating someone like scum?

If Judge Paul Darlow had anything to do with it, we’d all just get over racist language and see it as a bit of banter, or something like that. In a separate story about the dreaded p-word, The Guardian reports how Judge Paul Darlow, sitting at Exeter crown court, said he had found it "rather odd" a racism charge was brought against a man who called a police surgeon a "f*cking Paki" and had said Imraan Jhetam should have "let the matter roll off his back". He also had advised the defendant, Matthew Stiddard, to moderate his language. Next time, said the judge, "call him a fat bastard, and do not say anything about his colour".

According to the paper, the judge has since apologised, saying "My comments were not intended to make light of racist remarks. I fully accept that, in a circumstance and time, they can be both offensive and distressing to those to whom they are addressed."

But all of this raises some interesting issues about language and representation and the harmful effects of words. Are the words themselves “bad” and so poisoned with racist attitudes that they can’t be used without causing distress? I have problems with this notion, because in the process of discussing this topic we have to use words like “p*ki” and by doing that we’re not being racist but attempting to be analytical.

Then you have the notion of reclamation: many contentious and previously problematic words such as bitch, the n-word and queer have been reclaimed by some of the previous targets of the words themselves, but by no means all. Even the word “p*ki” has - it has been argued – been reclaimed by some Asian people, its racist power removed in their mouths. I’m not convinced. And does a debate over racist language actually divert us from the “real” racism which is exhibited not through language necessarily, but through our actions and behaviour around other people of different ethnicities?

The latest developments appear to be a comment made by Shetty that she is experiencing racism at the hands of the three white women (see here) and the issue leading to demonstrations and effigy burnings in India on Gordon Brown's first trip there.

Useful for: ENA1 Language & Representation

p.s. I'm bleeping out swear words and not racist words, not because I think they're worse (I don't) but because most filters block these words first and I'd like you to be able to read this.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New words of 2006

Apart from the words to be found in Susie Dent's 'The Like Language Report for Real' published in autumn 2006 (Amazon link, some of which were discussed on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning (and alternatives with Michael Rosen on the Word of Mouth programme repeated yesterday at 4pm; you can listen again to both on the BBC R4 website, is the homepage address, then use the A-Z listing to reach the programmes wanted, and follow the prompts to listen again), here are some not particularly serious/legitimate coinages of the year, reported in the Observer just before Christmas, taken from Newsweek magazine in the first section:

Brokeback Marriage n. Thanks to Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and their celebrated screen tragedy, this describes a union between a gay man and a straight woman or a gay married man having an affair.
Celebutard n. A celebrity widely perceived as unintelligent. We're not naming any names, Paris Hilton.
Civil War n. Not a new term, but Iraq's 'sectarian violence' - to use George W Bush's preferred phrase - had people asking, is it or isn't it?
Fed-Ex n. So long, K-Fed. The tabloids found a new name for Kevin Federline after his break-up with Britney Spears.
Liquid Terror n. Coined after terrorists plotted to board planes in London with liquid explosives.
Season Creep n. Spring came early and summer lasted longer. What's to blame? Most say global warming.
Wikiality n. based on consensus rather than fact. The popularity of the online encyclopedia, which the public writes and edits, gave rise to the term.
Taken from the Observer, 24.12.06; here’s the link:,,329670651-102280,00.html

Another piece from the same edition's magazine; you’ll notice some overlap:
Five other new words for 2006
Truthiness: Supposed truth felt 'in the gut'; the quality of preferring 'facts' wished to be true rather than those supported by reality. Truthiness was recently chosen as word of the year by the American Dialect Society (and, as noted on Word of Mouth, by the American Merrill-Webster dictionary)
Jagshemash!: A welcoming enquiry made by Sacha Baron-Cohen in the guise of Borat Sagdiyev. It appears to derive from how-are-yous said in several East European countries. One might say 'Jagshemash! I like you. Do you like me? We make a sexy time?'
Celebutard: A celebrity who is, or is thought to be, unintelligent. Thought to have derived from the NY Times in an article about Paris Hilton, 'celebutard' coupled celebrity (or the later celebutante) and retard, and has since come to be used in reference to any person finding fame without having a high IQ. One might say 'Dunst, of course, portrayed Marie Antoinette as an 18th-century celebutard'. (Oh dear, they don't like Paris H. at the Observer, do they?!)
No noising: 'Quiet please!' Considered the top Chinglish (Chinese-English) words of 2006, 'No noising' originally appeared on signs in Chinese libraries
Polska zywnosc: 'Polish food'. A simple message, often misspelt, which is attached to shop windows to note that there are Polish products on sale inside
John Hind contributed this second section. Happy new year from Cornwall!

Raising an index finger to PC?

"Borat raises an index finger to political correctness and all its exponents," claims Mail on Sunday reader Colin Veitch online, who obviously feels that were Borat to raise his middle finger, the finger traditionally used for giving offence, he may have been overstating his case.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the various rants that have appeared here over the last couple of years about attacks on PC (Political Correctness) and the motives behind such ludicrous non-stories as “Christmas” being banned, Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep replacing Baa Baa Black Sheep, and the splenetic outrage of various tabloid newpspers at the word “housewife” being reassessed by the Women’s Institute. So, it’s with great joy that I can link to a piece by my favourite comedian, Stewart Lee, who looks at what PC has given us and how it’s absurd to claim that comedy shows & films like Borat, Little Britain and The Office are anti-PC.

In the rush to attack PC, most commentators seem to have forgotten that its original raison d’etre was to prevent language causing offence to, and discrimination against, different groups in society: a noble aim in many respects. And they also forget how poisonous public discourse was in the 1970s about issues like race, mixed marriages and homosexuality. As Lee explains:

I'm 38, and old enough to remember comedy, and life in general, before political correctness. At secondary school in the Midlands in the early 80s, our maths teacher, who was a genuinely nice man, would routinely refer to the one Asian boy in our class as "the Black Spot", fondly imagining that this was in some way inclusive, like some pocket calculator-wielding version of David Brent™. And the idea of a comic performer like Little Britain's Matt Lucas being openly gay - let alone having photographs of his civil ceremony splashed across the tabloids - would have been unimaginable, however camp his on-stage persona.
Tabloids such as The Sun were quite happy to use a headline “Pooftas on Parade” in the 1980s when gay men were permitted to join the army, while popular culture was full of references to darkies, sooties and p*kis – all words that PC helped clean up, well, maybe outside of certain pubs in Chingford anyway…

Lee goes on to discuss the language of PC, linking it to linguistic determinism & relativism adding:

There's a vast difference between the casual, inadvertent offence prevalent in my childhood and the choices made today by performers and writers of my generation, operating in a post-PC world, where they are aware of the power and meaning of the taboos they choose to break. Linguistic theorists who define the terminology of political correctness suggest that grammatical choices made in language influence both the speaker's and the listener's ideas and actions. This would seem to be common sense, so it would be churlish to argue against the idea of attempting to ensure basic levels of politeness and consideration in official, public discourse.

So, a reasoned and impassioned defence of PC, instead of my usual frothy-mouthed rantings about the cursed Daily Mail. For more info on the mighty Stewart Lee and his work, have a look at his website here.

Useful for:

ENA1 - Language & Representation ENA5 – Language Change

Democratising the dictionary

The return of BBC2's Balderdash & Piffle later this year is featured in many newspapers today, with much of the focus being on the ways in which the programme is seeking the public's information on the first appearance of particular words and phrases such as “dogging”, “kinky”, “the dog’s bollocks” and “tosser”.

While, most of us are fully aware of what these words mean – and use the last one on an almost daily basis when faced with missed homework deadlines from English Language classes – the OED is keen to find out if the public can supply earlier citations of the words in print than those they already have. So, according to the OED, the earliest appearance in print of the word “hoodie” was in Roddie Doyle’s The Snapper in 1990, but if you know that you saw it in an edition of the NME, Smash Hits or The Source two years before that, you can help them out.

And it’s important that such work is opened up to the public in this way, I think, as it democratises our language use and gets us away from any ideas that language change is a bad thing or a trickle-down from those experts and authorities above us on the social ladder. As John Simpson of the OED points out in todays’ Independent, this approach has been used since the 1800s: “"It's great that the long-established democratic traditions of the dictionary are continuing. Our first public appeal went out in 1859 and we've been busy collecting information every since. We've selected 40 words that are puzzling the OED's editors for the new wordhunt and we're hoping for some more great results."

The story is also covered in The Times and Daily Mirror, with the Balderdash & Piffle site here, and the OED’s Wordhunt site here.

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ENA5 – Language Change

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...