When the world and I were young – just this morning – I heard that the songwriter Gerry Goffin had died. This was, in one of life’s funny little correspondences, only a week or so after I saw an intriguing documentary about his former writing partner and former wife Carole King.

Gerry Goffin wrote the lyrics to many of late 20th century pop music’s most enduring tunes: Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp), He’s In Town, Up On The Roof, Saving All My Love For You, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman… Perusing a list of songs he wrote is quite an eye-opener – Glenn Medeiros, indeed!

Anyway, I had cause to be in the car this afternoon and enjoyed a very loud tribute, consisting of repeated listens to my personal favourite, this genius social commentary and guitars number, from 1966 – Pleasant Valley Sunday by The Monkees.

Every single time. Mr Goffin, many thanks!

Author JK Rowling, the BBC reports, has contributed cash and controversy to the debate on Scottish independence in the UK.

She marked her £1 million donation to the ‘Better Together’ campaign, which aims to keep Scotland in the UK, by suggesting that some nationalist critics in Scotland were “a little Death Eaterish for my tastes”.

“Death Eaterish”…

The Death Eaters, to gloss for people who have not read the Harry Potter books, are pure-blood supremacist wizards, who wear a special mark on their arms and follow their dark leader, operating outside the normal laws of magic.

Nazis

Nazis

Death Eaters

Death Eaters

Some Scottish nationalists are a little bit like Death Eaters, though, to use Rowling’s whimsical analogy. Definitely not the SS.

Given the potential consequences (positive and negative, on all sides) of Scotland choosing independence from the UK, we will of course see such high profile figures choosing to draw attention to the referendum, and particular arguments.

I am amused but a bit discomfited by the commentary associated with this development, where the foregrounded issue seems to be Rowling so doing in such a self-reflexive manner. It is almost as if this point is secondary to Rowling proving Godwin’s Law at a relatively early stage of proceedings.

Still, it will almost certainly get dirtier, tricksier, as the campaigns before the referendum intensify. And definitely populist, lowest common denominatorish. Perhaps we can look forward to, say, the cast of Taggart throwing out epithets such as “murderous-criminal-like”. Or Ian McDiarmid: “Sithy.”

Ooh! My Interactive Talking Tablet comes in blue or pink.

colour-coded-talking-tablets

…but what is it saying?

Today, remembrance services in Europe mark the 70th anniversary of “D-Day”, June 6th 1944.

D-Day was quite an undertaking. It marked a decisive moment in the Second World War, the history of Europe, the world.

There was – and remains – no doubt in the minds of the people taking part that they were engaged in something important.

I bought this book second hand some years ago:

magic_and_religion_Frazer

Among its pages, this note and inscription:

D_Day_good_luck_Ike

Such finds are one of the reasons I enjoy and love “real” books.

The language used by Eisenhower is unequivocal: “this great and noble undertaking”. It has been a powerful experience watching the veterans on the footage today. Even the youngest of them, 15 at the time according to some accounts, are nearing 90. They’re still standing up for the prayers.

Of course, the date in the book is intriguing. I will do my best to find out who W Beecham (?) is or was, and provide an update on them.

The choice of book is intriguing as well. It confirms a thought I was having earlier, that it is important also to have an understanding and respect for imagination and human creativity as ways of making sense out of a sometimes brutal world.

This was going to be another worked-up, serious-faced, lengthy post discussing language, words, and the wording worders who mangle them.

Languages change. Given this, one has to adapt, keep up, or risk not making sense. This is an individual thing, though, and attempts to impose orthodoxies on others should be resisted. Words can be keys or cages. It is advisable to use them carefully.

darwin_responsive_shh

One could aim at least to see when familiar or habitual ways of saying things might cause confusion or upset – are not developing anything.

Contexts change too, and the importance of being aware of this was exemplified in the recent revelations of English soccer administrator Richard Scudamore’s infelicitous emails as seen in the Mirror, also reported on BBC, in the Telegraph, etc.

The Mirror’s headline:

England football supremo Richard Scudamore made sexist slurs in a string of emails to soccer pals

To recap, briefly: British man in his 50s, father of five, former Head Boy of his school, former law student, and footballer, turns out to be a Bantersaurus Rex. Imagine our surprise!

With a strange next step in the process of “whistle-blowing”, former temporary PA Rani Abraham had passed the sorry dossier of shame to the Daily/Sunday Mirror.

The Mirror website updates its links frequently, but when I first saw the “sexist slurs” article, it was juxtaposed with this in the sidebar:

Sexy selfies of the week! Bikinis, bums and boobs – we’ve got it all right here

"Uh... jiggle?"

At that point I stopped getting worked up and started giggling.

tl;dr:
Languages change. Contexts are important. Keepy-uppy.

A number of news media sources report that a special committee of the UN will be debating the development (and deployment) of ‘killer robots’.

…amid fears that once created they could pose a “threat to humanity”.

I share concerns that people may be continuing to develop weapons that might be used as weapons…

Jetting past the pop culture whimsy, indicated by the nervous use of illustrative stills from Terminator films and jokey mouseover Dalek comments, that this has become an Official Issue for Discussion is actually a grave development. When the UN and similar bodies take seriously apparently novel ways to kill ourselves like this, it usually means it is already happening.

The idea of science fiction/speculative fiction being ‘today’s world set tomorrow’ can perhaps be augmented by seeing it as a kind of two-way wormhole. Creation and scientific development today also incorporate these projected views of different futures. Each informs the other.

I consider it a matter of worry and disappointment that we the species do not seem to take on board the negative aspects of our own interpretations, allegories, extrapolations. That we still view consensual reality and the future as things that need marshalling with guns, ever shinier and more complex. That we can look at the Terminator films and think ‘Yeah… we need those killer robots’.

We are still waiting for smart fruit…

Smart Fruit from Danny McKenna on Vimeo.

Stealth Bananas.

‘Nīðing’ used to be about the worst thing you could call a Viking. Languages change, but there always seem to be insults.

While reading about Jeremy Clarkson not thinking before he opens his mouth this week, I have had lots of thoughts about language, words, and the wording worders that use them.

Clarkson is a British broadcast and print journalist. He hosts BBC show Top Gear, a magazine prog about cars, and also writes a middle-aged blokish column of comment and rants in The Sun newspaper. He is someone whose recycled ideas, lumpen delivery and signposted humour have never appealed to me, but I can see why he might to certain tastes.

Anyway, he seems to be making a habit of putting a big racist foot in it recently. Apparently using, but not meaning to, because it is not in his ‘lexicon’, ‘the N-word’. Also in trouble for actually saying, as an aside, while an Asian was in shot, ‘slope’: Clarkson and his producer somewhat disingenuously claiming no awareness of this as a derogative term for Asians, the lying C-words.

I mean, though, really, rather than get offended or defensive, when Clarkson starts speaking I just think ‘Oh, F-wit speaking’ and tune out. Yet I believe him and co-presenter James May in their disavowal of racism. Having read the Clarkson canon, and having seen his shows, his loose lips, currently sinking the ship of his career, seem to be passing what might be most kindly termed ignorant anachronistic jokes: schoolboy puns and wordplay based on “equal opportunities bigotry – I don’t care who I offend!”. Offhand comments, often at the expense of ethnic minorities, LGBTQWERTY people (and that was a Clarkson-esque joke), etc. Not done with overt malice, but as a kind of teen/toddlerish boundary testing, quick to weigh in with apologies and qualifiers as soon as anyone says ‘Hang on, what did you say?’

It is ignorant, in the sense of JC probably not having experienced bigotry himself much, simply not knowing, standing up for ‘common sense’ and against ‘political correctness’, perhaps with a dash of ‘libertarian’ thought that ‘free speech’ is simply saying whatever you like whenever you like with no consideration of context or consequence.

Anachronistic, because I see in Clarkson’s persona the influence of 20th century writers and artists, who regularly threw in ‘offensive’ words to question the value, meanings and definitions of words, to shock but to ‘reclaim’ them. To be clear, though, while this influence may be there, Jeremy Clarkson’s sweaty posho Tory petrolhead demeanour is not that of Lenny Bruce, or Richard Pryor, or Robert Anton Wilson, for three male examples, and it’s not the 1970s. While we may still today need our minds unshackling, Clarkson is at best fumbling for the keys while attempting the same things as these people. What he says and does comes across as ill-considered and foolish.

This is me being kind, by the way. I don’t really think he’s attempting to emancipate us from mental slavery in his daring choices of language. I think he’s a bit of a spoon. But let’s lay off Jezza. I’m sure he has some very good gay, black friends. And it’s not just him.

Indiscriminately lobbing word bombs around is ill-considered anyway. If common sense suggests that some people are or could be upset when you say something, then you should seriously think about what will happen if you do say it, even as a joke. Really think about it. Bear in mind the impact what you say might have on someone, someone that hears you, or someone that hears about you saying it. If you believe using a word is harmless, or that because you have worked out your post-everything linguistic certainties it’s all OK, consider what your hearer will think you think.

Is that what you want them to think? Then speak on, sweet lips.

“It’s their problem if they get upset.”

It is their problem that they are upset, as it is yours that you have upset them. Conversation is not a one-way street.

Perhaps you are of the school that they’re only words, arbitrarily-defined strings of characters, and that we need to get over them. Just to be clear, I agree with this as a theoretical position. You may hold that one can say what one likes, and then sow your discourse with semantic landmines… You are probably only good company for a limited time before your aggressive testing of everyone else’s social norms begins to grate.

As I suggested, I don’t think Clarkson fits into any of these boxes. I do think he’s a bit of a fannyballs. I mean, what the F-word is he doing? ‘The N-word’, as it is still being termed, and it is probably safe to say in the face of coy media reporting and cultural assumptions that the word is not “nīðing”, ‘the N-word’ has a complicated heritage. As Russell Simmons wrote, it is:

…probably one of the most controversial words in the history of the English language.

It has multiple connotations, and it is almost certainly best avoided, in whatever company you are keeping, unless you are all happy with it. You certainly do not start doing playground verse with it, on camera, thinking perchance that nought ill may come of such a scenario (sorry, turning into Russell Brand there, forsooth).

‘It was a discussion on semantic intolerance!’
‘I was being ironic!’
‘Yeah, but black people use it all the time!’
‘Oh, but I was spelling it with the variant “a” at the end!’

[Sound of palm and face intersecting]

You can’t use violent mentalities anymore.
- “I can’t wait”, Ol’ Dirty B-word

Lenny Bruce on the issue (difficult, given both content and delivery):

I would tend to side with Bruce as well, given that he seems to be talking about an enforced semantic shift based on overuse not suppression. Maybe we like having these taboo terms, though, that we love to hate. We can dance around them, feel naughty about using them. This is what gives the words power, as Lenny Bruce suggests.

Contrast this, though, with the memory hole prescriptive approach advocated by Harriet Harman (who, note to non-UK readers, is often referred to in the (political right-leaning) press as “Harriet Harperson”, mocking her supposed relentless and apparently humourless political correctitude).

What, whatever context, ever? Whatever ever? Whatever ever?

Bit absolutist, perhaps. Yet racial stereotyping and thoughtlessness and what we say to each other ARE problems. It’s not any particular words, though, I think, that are the issue. There will always be some new word that takes over, when people try to shock, or get a laugh, or jab a finger in somewhere painful.

The older I get, the more I consider it, the less true the old proverb ‘sticks and stones’ is in practice. Broken bones heal, but word harm can fester in the brain. Words have physical power. Spells are called spells for a reason. To not see that… you’d have to be a really silly Clarkson.

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