Tuesday 13 January 2009

On insults, or not

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.


Julia said...

Very interesting post. I've been thinking of something along similar lines - where men (boys/guys/young males - whichever term suits best) use terms such as tubby, d*ckhead as almost pet names in conversation with each other. No one bats an eye lid in the room - however those not in the friendship group are often horrified that this is the way people express belonging/friendship.

I think you absolutely have a point in that it's all dependant on both intention and reaction - however these both have to be positive for an apparent insult to have positive meaning. If that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

There are several thoughtful postings on this on the Word of Mouth Message Board starting with http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio4/F2766781?thread=6177189&skip=140&show=20#p74165386

Earlier in the same thread there's the startling assertion that a pronunciaion of Pakistan with a 'short' a-vowel in the first syllable (as North of England or general American accents) is equally insulting because it reminds hearers of the P-word. The sometimes heated debate starts with http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbradio4/F2766781?thread=6177189&skip=40&show=20#p73889733.

Cassie H-S said...

We had an interesting situation on a message board I use when an American used the term 'spaz', which they subsequently described as a casual term, non-offensive and widely-used in their culture. British readers were very uncomfortable with what they (we) saw as a very offensive term, and there were quite a few discussions about whose comfort-zone we should keep within. They didn't intend any kind of offence, though, so things kept civil because it was just a misunderstanding. In the end, I think the general consensus was that the term should be avoided, to keep the most people happy. It's tricky when cultures collide.

DC said...

Especially so. I think that was a wise outcome. When one is alerted to a problem usage, the natural reaction is to steer clear of it, just in case.

Anonymous said...

That probably explains why I haven't heard the s-word in the 35 years since I left school (in London)...

TakingaDayOff said...

What about the class issue? Prince Harry calls someone "Paki" and the fellow laughs it off because it wouldn't do to punch his royal highness. And the sycophant friends of Harry laugh along. Does the "Paki" colleague get to call Harry an affectionately derogatory nickname as well? Or does it only go one way?

This reminds me of Gerge Bush and his little nicknames for everyone. No one complains about being called "Turd Blossom" or whatever, because what are you going to do? But if Bush isn't addressed as "Mister President", there's hell to pay.

DC said...

An important point. It would be nice to have some facts to support it, but how would one ever get them?

baralbion said...

The failure here was one of judgment, rather than one of the choice of language. Those in the public eye have to be aware of the possible consequences of the words they utter, however innocently intended.

Anonymous said...

The test I try to apply, whether making possibly non PC comments or criticising them, is to ask myself whether they would be considered impolite or hurtful. At school (and this demonstrates that my memory has outlasted some of my physical faculties) I was called many names: Hoss and Smudge were two of the most common), but I never felt them to be unkindly meant. Today, there are some who regard me as a Brit or a Taff. Am I supposed to feel insulted by this?

Perhaps I'm unduly naif, but wouldn't plain good manners solve many of today's problems?

Horace Bernard-Smith

DC said...

Nice piece by Howard Jacobson in the Independent on Saturday 18th, stressing the importance of context. Here's a quote, to give you the flavour of it:

'And please don't tell me contexts are no excuse. Without a context we understand nothing. A context explains an intent. And without an intent we understand nothing either. A word on its own tells you absolutely zilch. Words are innocent. Words await what the user means to do with them, and then await interpretation at the other end. They are no more malicious in themselves than alcohol is inebriated in the bottle. Only where people go about in primitive terror of gods and goblins do words have the magic properties of evil. And we are not such people, are we? We are liberated from superstition. We don't think a word is imbued with malevolence no matter who employs it, how he employs it, where he employs it, to whom he employs it, and regardless of what he hopes will be the consequence of his using it.'

For the whole piece, see:

Anonymous said...

This is a sensitive issue, intentions in word usage is crucial. Through text, there’s context. There are social-historical, diatopographical and diachronological reasons on why we use certain words in certain contexts.

Words can have a tendency to put on clothing that insult. Words are heavily charged with meaning and history and it is difficult to do away with certain terms but the reality is that they exist, let alone the derogatory terms that exist for Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Iranians, Iraqi's and other diverse groups within the U.S. context.

Though our society is becoming aware of the linguistic diversity that encompasses our own groups(again here in the U.S.), we still place higher premiums on particular ways of speaking (accent) and writing (we are Times New Roman academic creatures) and even social interacting ('To Facebook or Not to Facebook' – seriously...that is my question).

Even comedians walk a tightrope with the language they employ for their comedic arsenal but context is most always there, and when context is not set up well, they are in deep trouble.

Norms have been challenged however throughout history and continues in our very present day and age here in 2009, though there seems to be more visibility of these shifts in speaking. From music to the internet to our popular culture and so on, linguistic variation in speaking has always been around, perhaps we are becoming more tolerant to it or not, that is not left up to us but to future generations.

Stylistically speaking, it has been attractive and hip to be different and flair on words can be seductive. I think William Shakespeare knew this art of rhetoric, writing and speech very well, hence his impact on the English language, and the variations of English that have spawned from this- including American English. Further, even if one cannot comprehend all the sensitivity surrounding particular words, at least in learning what not to say (or not to do), that would be one worthwhile lesson we can all agree upon.

Jessica said...

I can identify with the 'spaz' issue. Being American, describing someone as 'spastic' or 'a total spaz' has absolutely no semantic relation to a medical condition (at least, I wasn't aware of the connection until recently--perhaps it has different associations with other generations). It's used--usually affectionately--to describe someone as a little chaotic. Thank goodness I learned its taboo status before I found out the hard way! I do think it's unfair,though, whether to royalty or to the rest of us, to assume malice, particularly from outside the context in which the taboo is spoken. The hoopla was way overblown.