This blog post is going to use several words that may offend people. That is, sort of, the point. Some will be a*******ed out, some not, according to house style; that will, in turn, annoy other people. Don’t read on if you think you may be one of those people.
Anyway. Racist language is in the news again – as if it’s ever out – after the allegations laid by Chelsea Football Club against Mark Clattenburg were dropped disdainfully by the Football Association. Mr Clattenburg had been accused of calling the black Nigerian midfielder Jon Obi Mikel a “monkey”, and the Spanish playmaker Juan Mata a “Spanish tw**”. Cue much fury, claim and counter-claim.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend, a few weeks ago. “Why is it OK to call someone a ‘b*****d’ or a ‘Brummie b*****d’ but not, say, a ‘black b*****d’?”, he said. “It’s a descriptive term.” I’ve heard similar arguments about “Paki”: “it’s just an abbreviation of ‘Pakistani’,” people say, and thus, the logic goes, no more offensive than “Brit” or “Aussie”.
This would be a perfect and unarguable point, if language actually were a logical system, like algebra. But language, while having much logic to it, is not a logical system: A does not always equal A.
I was reminded of this in a wonderful blog post by Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of linguistics at Brown University and the University of Edinburgh. He discusses a pair of students at a colleague’s linguistics class, discussing the use of the “F-word”, or, as Pullum puts it, “the principal obscene word of the English language, the one that begins with a voiceless labiodental fricative”. The students claimed that the shock-inducing nature of the word is merely generational: “when their generation matures, the F-word and other expletives will have normal status.”
Nonsense, says Pullum. “That particular obscene word will not come to ‘have normal status.’ It can’t. Or at least, if it ever did, we’d have to develop a new and more shocking word that didn’t, and couldn’t.”
The F-word plays a role in language that is not defined by its logical implications. It means, or one of its meanings is, “to have sex with”. But it doesn’t have the same impact as “to have sex with”, or “to screw” or “to bonk” or “to make love to”; it is, through centuries of use, freighted with layers of cultural meaning: it is, to some, shocking. In the same way, “s***” is logically synonymous with but actually completely different from “poo” or “faeces”; “c***” is not the same as its logical stablemates “vagina” or “froo-froo“, or, for the gents, “d***” is not the same as “penis” or “schlong”. Arguing that they logically ought to be is to miss the point entirely; see how far you get trying to use one of the asterisked options in this paragraph on a pre-9pm TV show, for instance, or ask yourself whether you’d use them in front of an elderly relative.
This doesn’t only apply to rude words, of course: Pullum points to an interesting piece by Geoff Nunberg at Language Log, who discusses the layers of meaning over the word “ain’t”. It works exactly the same as “isn’t”, in a logical, language-as-collection-of-Boolean-operators sense (and, of course, it’s only an accident of history that makes it non-standard English). But it has a different feel. I’m reading Roger Pielke Jr’s excellent book The Climate Fix, and it has a chapter entitled “What We Know For Sure, But Just Ain’t So”, quoting Mark Twain. Nunberg quotes George W Bush (“Psychology 101 ain’t working”) and Joe Biden (“This ain’t your father’s Republican Party, by the way. This is a different Republican Party”). Each time the implication of “ain’t” is that you’re dealing with something obvious and ungainsayable: you don’t need a college degree to see that Psychology 101 isn’t working; you don’t need a background of political science to realise this isn’t your father’s Republican Party. The word’s boring old definition is buried under a pile of cultural baggage, which transforms it into something else.
And that’s what’s going on when you call someone a “Paki”, or, of course, a “black b*****d” or a “monkey”. The apparently harmless abbreviation “Paki”, which you (and George W Bush, again) might think is just like “Afghan” or “Uzbek”, is to Pakistanis and other subcontinental people, redolent of “Paki-bashing” gangs in the 1970s, of racial abuse, of violence. “Black b*****d” is the same (“black” carries the weight of much more anger than “Brummie”), and “monkey”, when applied to black people, raises the old, ugly racial theories which suggested (on the basis of a total misunderstanding of the theory of evolution) that non-white races were somehow “closer” to apes than “the White Man” was. There are decades’-worth, or even centuries’-worth, of intercultural ill-feeling imbued in each word, which immediately overwhelms any boring word-logic.
The cultural weight of racial language, and the backlash against it in recent decades – which some might well argue has gone too far, as the jailing of Twitter-idiots and the like attests – is why the word “racist” now has such a devastating effect, and why Mr Clattenburg feared that his career would be over after he had it falsely, if briefly, attached to his name. Words aren’t logical; they’re cultural signifiers. Arguing that they ought to be logical is to misunderstand how language works. To call a black man a “monkey”, or to call a referee a racist, will always have greater meaning than the “meanings” suggest.