Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Pikeys and lesbos

Two words are currently in the news amid claims that they are problematic or offensive. Apparently, the islanders of Lesbos are up in arms about their island's name being used as a label for women who love other women, and are campaigning for the word to be returned to them. Read here for more on this Sapphic madness.

Elsewhere, ITV are being investigated for the use of the word pikey in a Grand Prix broadcast. So what is a pikey and why is it a bad word? The OED defines it as "a vagrant, a tramp, a traveller, a gypsy" and it's probably this last point that makes it more sensitive as a term of abuse as it could be used to label a specific ethnic group: Romany gypsies.

Like many other words, pikey probably isn't intentionally used by most people in such a way, but then I remember not so long ago "gyppo" was often used by people of my generation to describe anyone who looked remotely unkempt, scruffy or shifty-looking. I've heard it chanted at opposing football team players who have sported unfashionable haircuts, and a reliable source from West Ham (our very own Mr Rice) tells me that "anyone slightly east European looking" might find themselves at the harsh end of "pikey" or "gyppo" chants.

But is it just another harmless word, or should we be concerned about the potentially prejudiced social attitudes it might reflect? Linguist Tony Thorne is quoted in the BBC Magazine article as saying

This is the language of social discrimination and it's quite shocking that this
language is now being bandied about. It started with 'chav' and then the 'posh'
stuff about David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

I'm swayed by the social prejudice argument when it comes to groups who have traditionally had less power in society (gay people, travellers, ethnic minorities ), but I can't see what's wrong with attacking those who've got more power than most of us - privileged and arrogant public figures such as Bojo and Cameron - I mean if you can't have a go at the posh who can you have a go at? So, "political correctness gone mad" or due concern for dangerous language?

Useful for:
ENA6 - Language Debates
ENGA2 (new spec) - Investigating Representations

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