‘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, as the carvers of runes understood it. To not see that that power is sustained in modern language… well, you’d have to be a really silly Clarkson.

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