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”.

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C-Notice

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.