After the Christmas and New Year lull, word queries are back with a vengeance. But I wasn't expecting my first correspondent of the year to be a journalist from the Sun newspaper. Nor was I expecting my brief response to figure in those pages along with a picture. (And no, it wasn't on page 3, in case you were wondering.)
It was about Prince Harry and the eavesdropped use of Paki. What did I think of it all?
I suggested that a linguist would give a somewhat more measured reaction than the hysteria we've seen in the press. With potentially sensitive words, everything depends on the phonology and the pragmatics - in other words, how they're said and what the intentions are. A word said in a friendly tone is worlds away from the same word said in a belligerent one.
Establishing the intentions behind the usage is crucial. If everyone in the group uses the nickname, including the recipient of it, and everyone is comfortable with it, then anyone who peers in from outside and criticizes it must have their own agenda. Usually that agenda is pretty obvious (eg anti-monarchy), but the criticism is likely to be unpersuasive if it ignores linguistic realities. And certainly, judging by the opinions I've read in the various newspaper forums, most people haven't been persuaded.
I bet everyone has a story to tell like mine. When I moved to Liverpool from Wales back in the 50s, the kids immediately called me Taffy. I got so used to it that I would often introduce myself to new school acquaintances in this way. It was a rapport thing between us. Everyone had a nickname. And I was especially chuffed when the teachers used it to me. But not when a kid younger than me did. That was being cheeky.
Everything in language depends on the circumstances. Words are the messengers of intentions, and we should never shoot the messenger. Equally, we should always be alert to the possible impact our words might have on our listeners, and choose them well. Especially if we suspect there could be a newspaper reporter listening round the corner.
I thought that would be it. But no, today the Sun calls again. Apparently Prince Charles is in the firing line now for calling an Asian polo-playing friend 'Sooty'. It doesn't seem to matter that the friend has said that it was 'a term of affection with no offence meant or felt'. I find it a bit disturbing, I must say, when anyone with an axe to grind now seems entitled to tell us what we must have meant.
We know from the theoreticians of pragmatics that there's a useful distinction to be drawn between intended and actual perlocutionary effects, but this is usually discussed with reference to the effect of an utterance on the person(s) we are talking to. I'm not sure how the theory handles newspaper eavesdroppers, let alone the reactions of the readers of their reports. If there are people who, for whatever reason, hate a particular word, then this might influence our readiness to use the word in public situations, but should we allow them to have any influence on the way we talk in private? I've seen the argument this week that we should, on the grounds that to use a term like Paki even in private shows that the user has an undesirable mindset. This strikes me as being overly simplistic, but I'd be interested to hear some views.