Word of the Year

End of year summaries and lists are in full frenzy, and if anything uses up space in late December space-fillers, it’s the “Word of the Year”. With this year being particularly cuckoo-bananas, trying to sum up the whole thing in one word is hard. It’s been a good year to disprove the attitude that ideology has died: this year has been, if anything, more polarised than any time in generations. Time-travelling Soviets could zip forward to any point during this year to assume the collapse in respect towards the police and politicians meant they were onto a winner. 
The “Occupy” movement has defined this year, with all the other protests and riots branching off like tree made from malevolence. Although the aims and ambitions of the “Occupy” lot haven’t yet achieved anything, their attitudes and methods dictate and decide the patterns of anti-austerity protests across Europe and the Middle East freedom marches. Each educates each other – methods, slogans, processes. As one “Occupy” movement uses foursquare or Twitter or Google+, so another learns to do the same. The aims may be fuzzy, the ambitions confused, but the methods are unlike anything the Establishment has seen before. This is what happens when the ideology which fed the 60s and 70s teenage marches is super-sized. 
Cynical about the markets and corporatism, comfortable with turning the word “occupy” into a capitalised brand, “Occupy” is the measure of 2011, its skeleton and its organs. Whether you agree with those who camp out fully or not, their actions have redefined the protest movement forever. The word “occupy” has been adapted, redefined, reformed, from something implicated with war and detention to expression and freedom. Suddenly “occupy” can also represent the possibility of change, not a determination to crush the human spirit. “Occupy” protesters are themselves an ill-defined bunch – some are more anarchic than others – though until their own organisation begins to break down they have successfully made an synonym of “organise”. 
Nominations for “word of the year” tend to focus on technology (“check in”, “share”, “Andrioid”) or culture (“hipster”, “chinos”, “pop-up restaurant”).  It seems more important this year to look deeper than material goods. That’s why politics retains its importance and relevance, and how 2012 is already defined by what politics cannot deliver.

Ruffled feathers

Cards on the table – though by now regular readers should have fathomed this out – I am not the biggest fan of the Labour Party. I was struggling even as a child, when my dad would sneer at the very sound of the word “Kinnock” and I’d be given very compelling reasons why the son of a Wiganer whose entire working life was down the mines was no more ‘socialist’ than a goldfish.

It doesn’t help that the current Labour leadership is so ineffectual. Remember Ed Miliband telling us that the strikes earlier this year were wrong “while negotiations are still going on”? (It’s the video in which he tells us again and again and again and oh sorry my ears have run away).  Now he’s using the same drone-voice reasoning for this U-turn. I presume the Union leaders have sharpened their poking sticks. He must be one of the few walking talking humans whose voice doesn’t change when goosed.

Ed Balls doesn’t help make the Opposition very attractive to me either, and that’s not a personal insult against his face, though it does resemble a sack of cauliflowers. I would appreciate Balls admitting that the Labour Party is partly responsible for the mess we’re in, though that would be less forthcoming that admitting he dresses up in Yvette’s clothes of an evening, so instead we’re faced with an economic “5 point plan” that’s more insane than a cheesecake made from Ritalin.

During yesterday’s Prime Minister’s bunfight, two things happened. One – John Bercow signed his resignation letter. Two – D-Cam used “left-wing” as an insult. It was obviously the soundbite he wanted because he used it twice, including the bit at the end where he can say whatever he likes because Ed has used up his six questions. It wasn’t much of a soundbite anyway, because the flow was all wrong – “Irresponsible, leftwing and weak!” sounds clumsy and without any rhythm. It’s not an insult so much as a shopping list.

“Red Ed” still gets used against the Labour leader, and despite its accuracy has not stuck. Political labels are difficult to sustain as insults. “Liberal” in the United States might as well be “Baby Eating Whore”, though that’s very much a product of the polarised political situation over there. “Liberal” in this country has never caught on as a disparaging label. “You’re too liberal!” sounds almost effete and camp. “You can protect my civil liberties any day of the week, you jolly old eek.”  “Fascist” has taken to wearing on the damp cloak of “Tory!” and “Thatcher!”, not so much an effective swipe to the ego, more a measure of the man saying it. “You’re just a Yellow Tory!” is something I am often accused of being, though it does paint a picture in my mind of an elderly conservative woman having trouble with her bodily functions. But that’s just me. And in any case,  I am no Tory. Okay, I’m a bit more economically conservative than I am socially liberal but I point honourable members to my dad for that one.

Cameron’s use of “leftwing” as an insult landed squarely on the floor in a heap of damp tissue and I suspect he knows this. Nobody denies that the left have their loony tendencies, or being a slogan-shouting anti-everything socialist does tend to have you marked down as potentially unstable. “Tax us more! Spend more! Borrow more!” – it’s like being shouted at by a drunk Open University lecturer, one whose still trapped in side your television in a beige box room, strangling  himself with his kipper tie in your nightmares.

If “leftwing” sticks, it’ll be accident and not design. One time socialist micro-grouplet “Left List” tried and failed to win elections some years ago in the London Assembly elections, the word “left” seeming unusual and out of place. We know “Labour” and we know, at a push, “socialist”. The slow  beating to death of ideology in the years following Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power probably did for the extremes to do much good in the identity stakes. It took Tony Blair the Iraq war for some members of the Labour Party to remember that they were, in fact, on the left wing. Hence the birth of the Socialist Alliance and Respect and all the other far out placard wavers.

Both sides of the political spectrum agree with each other more than they think, or would dare to admit. It’s expediency to use each others stance as a beating stick. It’s also potentially damaging to a discourse already reduced to its most shallow forms. We’re supposed to do democracy different in this country, and Cameron had vowed to end Punch and Judy politics. If Ed Miliband is wrong just for being “leftwing”, than Cameron has missed the point entirely. Labour is wrong for all sorts of reasons.  Using political labels in this way is inaccurate and insulting. It would just have to be a fluffy, fence-sitting liberal to point that out. 

Mong the Merciless

So, another news story generated from Twitter. It’s as though journalism really is onto the final injections and long talks about inheritance, the way all this is going on.

In summary – yes, this is Ricky Gervais, whose brand of comedy thrives on awkwardness, subverting conventions and generally pushing people further and further in their pressure points. I am not without criticism towards Gervais as it is, particularly as the cross-over between creative genius and self-satisfaction occurred halfway through Extras and hasn’t been returned to since. But he can still be very funny and thought provoking….as we have all seen with this latest version of Twitter Generated Public Fury.

By using the word “mong” in a one-liner tweet, Gervais unleashed the usual InstaReply Corps. of Twitterati, the libertarians and PC-brigade, the professionally shocked and defenders of the free speech; all falling over each other in hurried attempts to prove themselves either more shocked or more in support than the last. Edifying? Well it hasn’t done much to save the general public from sounding like reactionary keyboard warriors, and I say that as  a blogger…

Is “mong” offensive? It’s been a while since my schooldays but even back then it was considered one of the harder swearwords, most likely to cause teachers to scowl and scold. But we giggled and guffawed all the same – as we did with “gay” and “spaz” and all the rest. It was a bog standard primary in the north, and we were very young, so every swear word and offensive term was scoffed up like sweets. They were bad words, naughty, and tempting. “Queer”, “Paki”, “wanker”.  How much joy it was to be alive with these terms on our tongues. “Retard”, “spastic”, “belm”.

Language alters and changes, all grammar leaks, and meanings of words develop and mould; any English language tutor can tell you that. “Gay” and for that matter “queer” are reclaimed by the homosexual community, leading to one classic Homer Simpson line (“That’s our word for you!”). And if you’re worried about “Paki”, then you needn’t worry one bit.

So why the on-line whom-a-flip over Gervais and his use of “mong”, or the way in which some celebrities have placed themselves on the side of the critics? In all fairness to Gervais (and it’s not as though he gives on single hoot), the term does carry provocative and offensive weight, one of the remaining slang terms which walks around with punch in its fists. It is related to many turns of phrase which have not been rescued by the cape of irony (“And then Mr Smith went full retard”, case in point). There is nothing in law or reason stopping Gervais from using the term in a joke, thank heavens, and long may there not be. The massed ranks of the “how dare you” brigade would do well to remember it’s a far better state we live in which allows him to use it.

However….and there will always be howevers…there are very good reasons why we have the offended mechanism hard wired into our brains. Jokes are not automatically funny by virtue of being jokes; “it’s all in the tag” as the comedian’s watchwords go. As Frankie Boyle has found to his cost, being offensive for the sake of it turns the person making the gags into a tiresome and predictable bore.  The hardest and most effective part of a joke, or indeed any turn of phrase, is the pay-off. That the tweet at the centre of all this centred on an offensive term misses the point; did the term itself assist the joke being effective?

We are told that children must be protected  –  from swearing, violence on TV, sexual content, explicit computer games.  We are told by certain reactionary quarters that adults too must be protected, that horses must never be scared, that naughty words and blue humour is outdated and boring. This age of political correctness and attitude of ‘we know best’ just has to be brought to an end. “Mong” will be a term that causes severe offence, of course it is, just as “spastic” must have done in the 1980s, but there was no legislation then to wean people off the term then and there sure as hey should not be now.

Gervais could have used a different term, and if he was that kind of person, no doubt he would have climbed down a bit by now. (“Time to show some humility, eh?” to quote Ed Miliband from earlier today.) His use of the word was ill-judged, though you will find me nowhere near the crowd of orchestrated shocked types lighting up the pitchforks. The words we need to find these days are reasoned ones for debate; it’s more offensive to read frothing rent-a-quote outrage than it is to see the word “cunt”.

Flying the flag

His infamous video now part of the Interwebz fabric, David Starkey’s “whites have become black” Newsnight melt-down (during which he sounded like a mad advert for OMO) garnered enough hubris and comment to fill Broadcasting House with carpets of Daily Mail and Telegraphs. At the core of his concerns, amongst rather extreme and obvious prejudice, was a subject more commonly expressed amongst the wider population than the commentariat realise; don’t just think the weather and house prices keep the English chatting all day long. If there’s one thing we like talking about, it’s how we talk.

Why does the English language produce such extreme reactions, instantly flinging up the shields and swords as quickly as tabloid newspaper journalists scarper towards a fishmonger with Lb. Oz signs on his stall?

In very broad-brush terms, the English language retains its strength and influence by virtue of its powerful ability to soak-up influences and alter its appearance. Very few major languages can change and alter so quickly – or to such divisive reaction amongst its native speakers. The rapid rise of communication models exacerbates the pace of change; mostly for good, keeping English as the language of sport and music, politics and business. Moreover, the language of culture, and as such the living record of how communities, their people, and ultimately their country, is developing.

That the language amongst young people in London is changing should be only a shock to journalists needing to extend columns by 200-words or more before the next print run. As traditional Cockney has moved across and out of the capital, so new ways to talk have moved in. “Hinglish”, “Jafaican”, “Caribbenglish”. Broad, solt-ov-di-urth East End accents now exist laced either with the coarse consequences of age, women and song, or the semi-conscious adoption of immigrant slang. And lo, it has been thus for generations.

We think nothing of “klutz” or “Kitsch” being naturalised English words, so why the immediate post-riot condemnation of ostensibly Black British slang, by Starkey and others? Is one assimilation less difficult to criticise than the other?

Analysing the use of certain phrases from black culture – from “safe” and “blud” to “break it down” – brings to mind one of my long standing points of reference in matters political or socio-linguistic. “Context is all”. The showing off amongst friends by younger people borrowing street slang is no more concerning than the 13 year old me flicking to page 53 of the English-French Dictionary in Mrs Cunliffe’s classes for a quick glance at the swears. As British immigrants grew older, made their homes and families here, it makes just as much sense for their language and dialects to be adopted as it would any outsider in a new town. Ever spotted accents altering your own speech in a new town? Or your almost unconscious adoption of new words or phrases after speaking to a mutual friend?

Starkey tapped into a much repeated concern amongst traditional, older generation Englishmen; that somehow, all of a sudden, what was ”our England” exists only in dreams and flashbacks as a consequence of allowing the language to adopt the traits of those who chose to learn it, share it, make it comfortable on the tongues and in their hearts. Somehow, England the place, the myth, the language, must retain its isolated state off the coast of civilisation until the right kind of revolution improves the lot of us all. It’s a stance I have never understood, and can never accept. There is a massive difference between accepting the new forms of modern English as the result of our nation’s strengths and attitudes on the one hand, and criticise the inappropriate use of the language in a disrespective manner on the other. I would rather moan at the teenage “like, you know, whatever” speech influenced by Paris Hilton, far more dangerous an influence than third-generation British Asians swapping three languages or more in beat poetry or rap.

As with any bloke getting into older years, some language use amongst people these days passes me by completely. I’m utterly lost at the speed with which the language of my teenage years has been lost to the archives, if they have indeed been recorded at all. Each generation will advance further away from the language of their parents, and their grandparents before them; there is no “English” to be protected, only the tangible exchange of sounds and words between the ages. The 2011 English riots have their causes and consequences in politics, poverty, aspiration and adversity; from which music and speech will flourish and through which the language of these islands will strengthen and grow.

Yes, the looters and murderers and thugs are prize-draw idiots who deserve criticism for their actions. Don’t try to connect too many dots – this was largely apolitical reactions to political malaise. The language of the youths who perpetrated the most violent, destructive crimes is not important. What they have to say is the manner to judge them. In trying to make politics out of patois, Starkey has shown he really is living in the past.


My mother passed away last week, and doubtlessly she would be appalled at the subject matter of this blog. That said, she always felt writing on-line always ensured the author was one paragraph away from a broadsheet’s newsdesk, meaning everything must surely balance out.

The four-letter C-word which is most offensive is matter for discourse after the Mail on Sunday created (in the sense of inventing something from scratch) one of their classic front page stories. Put together the BBC, liberals, non-British nationals and the breakdown in society and you produce classic MoS flabbergasted outrage.

As you may have noticed, the MoS don’t just reproduce the joke at the centre of the outrage, they also make it very clear that Sandi Toksvig didn’t actually use the word itself. In common with every comedian, comedy writer and funny woman in history, she used innuendo and implication. The line in full? The Coalition put the “n” into “cuts”. Hilarious, no?

BBC-bashing removed, the MoS have nothing else but froth and nonsense sprayed across the front page. It must be like helping an elderly former General, working at the Mail, never knowing when an innocent subject would set him off, spewing hate across the room without warning, leaving a poor care assistant to spend the evening wiping spittle off the Union Flag jigsaw puzzle. “How was I to know it was upside down?”

The word in question, all four letters of it, is at the top of broadcasting watchdog’s naughty swears list. For British viewers who must assume that the list no longer exists, it’s still pretty much taboo to say it. Chris Morris got knuckles wrapped for just putting the word in an on-screen graphic. It’s common to hear “fuck” and “shit” and “twat” all over the channels after 9pm – or at first thing in the morning if you’ve fallen asleep without turning off the Thick Of It DVD. The most holy of holy words (or if you prefer, hole-y, innuendo fans), is still only present very rarely. American viewers may never hear it at all on their television programmes (indeed, US audiences are always left bemused at just how much swearing, and inventive swearing at that, features uncensored on British TV.)

Any A-level student worth their salt should recognise the word as one used without much red-faced embarrassment across centuries by writers who could tiptoe (not pussy foot, come on now) around the Monks and printing presses. The Oxford English Dictionary has this from the year 1400:

In wymmen þe necke of þe bladdre is schort, & is maad fast to the cunte.

Chaucer, famously, would utilise all manner of alterations to the word – Kent, at one point, making the Wife of Bath seem more well travelled than first thought – and let us not forget “chamber of Venus” while we’re at it. If you want real emphasis with your swears, there’s also this 19th Century construction:

He‥became in fact *cunt-struck upon her.

and this from a publication called “Romance of Lust”.

As the very good blog “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands” says, this entire article is much fuss about exactly nothing. Radio 4 is not CBBC, nor is The News Quiz soft and fluffy family fun. When Alan Coren was a regular team captain, he was just as rude and raucous. Maybe Sandi has the misfortune of being female, and therefore automatically handicapped in the mind of your average Mail journo? Doubtlessly they hated Sarah Lund for not looking after her son properly. These Danes! Nothing but trouble since they landed here, what have we been told about immigration?

Having been brought up without much swearing in the house from either parent, my introduction to any naughty word was at school, and limited in any case to suppressed giggles wrapped around them. I will always remember being ticked off for using “twatted” – in the context of “being hit” – which I used knowing it to be controversial. I tend now to utilise them as and when needed. There’s always times and places for using “shyte”, which is always better with a northern accent behind it. For this fake front-page splash, the Mail have generated outrage where none is justified – the word was not used, only implied, and if the world of Carry On… movies or Blackpool’s saucy postcards are acceptable for their peculiarly outdated world, then so can this.

If you want to go anywhere else to learn about the joyous little world, I can move you towards the BBC Two language programme ‘Balderdash and Piffle’, where Germaine Greer analysed the history of it with characteristic vigour.

I apologise to my mum for using such terms, of course, though having also used it to bash the damned Mail I’m sure she understands.