Will Self, writer of occasional interest, has had a go at George Orwell. In an article on the BBC, (a somewhat ouroborostic bit of content given Orwell’s role in much the same sort of position for the Beeb), Self describes Orwell as a “Supreme Mediocrity”.

It seems pointless to rebut Self’s preposterously contentious article in any depth, given that the argument is based on a Will-full misreading of ‘Politics and the English Language’. He suggests that ‘the George Orwells of this world’ are cultural conservatives, reactionaries who ‘would rather peer at meaning by the guttering candlelight of a Standard English frozen in time, than have it brightly illumined by the high-wattage of the living, changing language’.

Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself. Only homogenous groups of people all speak and write identically. People from different heritages, ethnicities, classes and regions speak the same language differently, duh!

…’prejudices against difference itself’! This is the sort of rhetoric one might use to lambast people who object to “txt speak”, or any other modern innovations they suspect of being a bit foreign or liked by the youth, as debasements of our great and noble tongue. It’s a fair point in some ways. Languages are living and changing (although one could begin to dim Self’s de-lux metaphor by asking why language needs to be examined at night time anyway).

However, none of this is relevant to a discussion of Orwell’s essay, because Orwell isn’t talking about demotic Anglo-Saxae, the vernacular, street speak, and especially not about everybody speaking in the same way. He is discussing obfuscation in political discourse, and the obfuscating political discoursers who create it. It’s in the title, duh!

Orwell’s target is the generators of phrases (and situations calling for phrases) such as ‘friendly fire’. Self’s a provocateur. And he has succeeded in getting me geed me up enough to write something. Gah!

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.

‘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.

One of those pinball conversations in the lunch room today. It concerned a particular subset of texting etiquette, the inclusion of typographical kisses.

Someone had received a text from a builder, regarding a job of work. It concluded “[name of builder] X” We all agreed that this was perhaps de trop, an over-familiarity in a business relationship.
(Having said that, I think it appropriate to add that the world needs more affection in it, and if the casual use of letters as a kind of punctuation substitute is the start of a slippery slope to lovin’ all god’s creatures, it’s the sort of behaviour to be encouraged.)

But with regard to yer everyday texting, basically, context is everything, of course, as usual. So, no kisses from tradesfolk setting up an appointment for an actual job of work. With friends, lovers, even, there is perhaps no need to end every text with an ‘x’ as it devalues the exchange.
“You wouldn’t end every sentence with a kiss if you were just conversing.”
“Ah, well, that depends on where and to whom you’re talking.”

An interesting point. A simple “x” or “x-space-x” was seen as acceptable as a conclusion for text chats with partners or those you love. More than five is perhaps a bit keen. The discussion ranged further afield, with considerations of the use of upper case included. The same colleague with the workman issue offered by contrast the example of their partner, who was anti ‘kiss’ in all circumstances. This set the banter in the predominantly female space of the lunch room veering into quite raucous territory.

“What about XXXX? You could be taken to be really saying something appalling. Is that just me?”
“XXX has different connotations. Even worse – or better!” 
“XXXX just makes me think of beer. My partner’s an alcoholic. I send him an XB… That was a joke… I don’t text him…”

And so on for happy minutes until it was time once more for work.
x x

What the student might have meant to write:

“Both Shakespeare and Orwell use the emotion of love to interesting effect.”

What the student wrote:

“It is also interesting to see how Shakespeare and Orwell make love.”

[If you have any similar examples – typos, Spoonerisms, unintentional smut – perhaps you’d like to share them with everyone.]

‘Real life versions of Q’ (the fictional boffin from the James Bond films) are being offered government money (i.e. really my money) to develop technology to fight groups like al-Qaeda (the possibly fictional terror franchise), according to this bafflingly serious article from the BBC. But no, stop the giggling! It’s really real! There is (01-2015: or was, excuse the archived link) a Home Office unit called, Bondishly, INSTINCT! They have a strategy for it and everything… called CONTEST. I love the idea (described on the Home Office site) of ‘horizon scanning for technical threats’. It dredges up the image of INSTINCT blokes in lab coats swivelling the periscope on the SS CONTEST, looking for ruthless acronyms sailing into view with devices the like of which we cannot begin to fear adequately. Really, really though. ‘CONTEST’. Who sits thinking up this rubbish? Presumably people who describe terror threats as a ‘very real danger’, such as blogger Mark Dowe, whose oaty tones outlined the

‘very real danger that such terrorists will gain access to unconventional weapons – chemical, biological and nuclear’

[past tense ‘outlined’ because now Mr Dowe has a very real private setting on his site, possibly to prevent people gaining access to quotable material.] Setting aside an examination of the term ‘unconventional weapons,’ which might be extended to include items such as depleted uranium, say, or passenger jets used as missiles by actual real terrorists, this phrase highlights one of the most alarming tropes in ‘the war on terror’: the use of rhetorical amplification to distort reality.

People in public positions (ex-Prime Minister Blair, for example) often say things are ‘very real’, usually in the sense of there being a ‘very real danger’, or ‘very real threat’, or a ‘very real chance’ of something appalling happening. What they mean is genuine. It is not just one of your nebulous chances, it has a kind of concreteness that makes spending money on weapons and so forth very really necessary. What can ‘very real’ be supposed to suggest? Some things we imagine are real are not real? Fair enough, perhaps. But some things are real, some things are, like, megareal? Pffft. There is of course the implication that when people say ‘real’, and especially ‘very real’, they in fact mean ‘not at all real’.

Very real danger. As we continue to see, there are ‘terrorists’, people who act as though killing themselves or other people is a valid way of making a point… armed ideologues are always dangerous. It doesn’t make them any more dangerous to suggest they are a very real danger. Stop trying to make it sound worse than it is! If something is just shit, making it sound shitter is not going to help, and in fact the more you insist it is somehow more awful than awful, the less inclined people will be to believe you. Ask a shepherd. Doubleplusungood Alert, is it? I see.

Then there’s the serious expression people always get on when they use the phrase, which only compounds the insult. As if they have access to a better version of reality than everyone else, and they can convince you of their unique capacity to sort it all out simply by the subtle and sincere use of intensifiers.

“No, this is VERY real. You thought the Nazis were real? The IRA? ETA? Just playing at reality compared to these guys. They’re so real, they’re like a kiss on the lips from Slavoj Žižek… with tongues.”

How real do you want this? VERY REAL, PLEASE.

Still, you really can’t be too careful. In an INSTINCTive spirit of innovation, I’m developing a new anti-terror device. Based on a brown paper bag, it’s basically a brown paper bag. Every time you feel full of terror, you breath into it and it makes the fear dissipate.

I am currently brainstorming names for this device, but I believe it has already made a significant contribution to the fight against all those wishing to terrorise me with their fat-fingered throttling of the English language. Then perhaps when we’ve all calmed down and put the rocket-propelled nets in the cupboard with the swingball, we can address the very real threat of bombdogs.