Thursday, March 28, 2013


1: No. I don't know why it is somewhat okay to say "Mark Twain uses the n-word in Huckleberry Finn" but not okay to say "Mark Twain uses the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn". I suppose that the magic lives in the shape of the letters, in the same way that the magic of the F-word lives in its sound. I believe that both Neil Gaiman and Alan Garner researched the kinds of spells and charms that real magicians used to add authenticity to their fantasy stories, but then deliberately quoted them incorrectly, in case someone tried them out. I can see why you would want to draw attention to the fact that you find the word very offensive each time you quote it, in the same way that some Muslim traditions write "Peace Be Upon Him" each time they mention the name of the Prophet. I think that might be worth trying as an experiment, actually. "Some of the characters in "Scoop" use the word nigger (which is a very offensive word)". "In the course of "v" Tony Harrison says cunt (WIAVOW) seventeen times." 

2: Yes, the use of bloody (WIAMOW) in Pygmalion is a signifier of class, not obsentiy. Other characters use expletives like damn, hell,  filthy, and beastly (WAMOW) : they might be regarded as impolite or unladylike but it doesn't create a sensation. Eliza's sin is that she uses a lower-class word in an upper-class context. (In My Fair Lady, of course she shouts "move yer bleedin' arse (WAMOW)" during a race at Ascot, which makes the point rather nicely. 

3: There were some people on the high street having a campaign to stop the Middle East. They didn't agree with the way that Israel keeps taking more and more territory from Palestine, unlike the rest of you squares. They provided a map to show where the borders were in 1948, and another map to show where the borders were now. What interested me was that the two areas were marked "Palestinian land" and "Jewish land". Not "Palestinian land" and "Israeli land", or "Moslem land" and "Jewish Land." Was there a hidden Dawkins agenda, do you think (that it was Bad Religious People taking land from Nice Non Religious People)? Or did they think that "Jew" still carries negative connotations for many English people, and using the J-word would make us more likely to support the other side (in the way that the Daily Mail used to insist on calling The Labour Party "The Socialist Party" even though that isn't what it's called.) Or was it just that Jew is a short word and Israeli is a long word and there wasn't much space on the map. 

4: It isn't a tax. It's a means test. 

5: If you are reading about some particular theory or interpretation of history, you start to see evidence for it everywhere; very ordinary words start to take on special meanings. I described how this happened during the fortnight when I was reading about the "Paul McCartney is dead" conspiracy theory. Once you have been told that "he blew His mind out in a car" means "Paul died in a road accident" it is very easy to think that any lyric anywhere means the same thing. You think you lost your love -- because he died in a road accident. The long and winding road -- where you crashed your motorbike. On penny lane there is a fireman with an hourglass -- who is about to rush to attend the road accident. I think that, once you have decided that there is quite a lot prejudice around (which there is) you can easily flip into a mindset where every sentence and every word is evidence of prejudice. I think that once you have decided that there are quite a lot of people around who are absolutely paranoid about the PC police, then very ordinary events and words, like teachers noticing that its always the same food that gets used in food fights and taking that food off the menu, is evidence of the sinister hand of the PC police. So I suppose the only thing we can actually do is look charitably at context and intention, accept that language is a wibbly fuzzy thing that doesn't always do what we mean it to do and get on as best we can. Which, I realise, is scary to fundamentalists who think that the word means what the word means and if you say differently you are giving the bad man permission to be bad. There are left wing fundamentalists and feminist fundamentalists as well as religious fundamentalists and Darwinian fundamentalists  and I am perfectly well aware that fundamentalist is one of the magic words and someone will be saying "oh, no, no, no, no, fundamentalist means bad people who believe wrong things without evidence and can't possibly be applied to good Guardian readers who have a perfectly neutral stance on objective reality." 

So. Is there anything good on TV this Saturday?

Anyone who might be interested in "The Physical Impossibility of Debate In The Mind of Someone on the Internet" or "Language, Truth and Bollocks", my two previous extended rants on this subject do please send me an e-mail asking nicely, or make a small donation (£1.20 has been suggested) or buy something off the Amazon list and I'll send both the PDFs.  Many thanks to everyone who has already done so.  


Salisbury said...

(1.) is easy. As one ages, once comes to realise that not everyone listens as well as they might do, and that heard sentences are often not parsed with a deep commitment to syntax.

So if I were to say, 'Mark Twain uses the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn,' I run the risk of being misheard and/or understood, something along the lines of 'Mark Twain writes about niggers in Huckleberry Finn.' Suggesting, well, suggesting I'm happy to use the word 'nigger' in a casual fashion.

Evolution is probabilistic, suggesting our avoidance of certain words might spring from the likelihood of offence. Perhaps we might express it as:

O = S x R

where O = potential for offence, S = severity of language, R = risk of misunderstanding. When S is extremely high, the expected value of O should lead us in the direction of caution.

K said...

What Salisbury said.

A year or so in the US there was a kerfluffle about schools that wanted to actually censor the word out of Huckleberry Finn itself for use in schools with largely black populations. My social network was largely united in feeling this was a case of PCism run amok, and that people shouldn't be messing with the immortal words of Mark Twain, he used those words for a reason, they were part of the historical context, etc. etc.

I found it hard to get worked up about this. For one thing, it's not like anyone was suggesting censoring every copy of Mark Twain forever - just some copies in a specific context where the changes was expected to make the books somewhat less unpleasant to read for a specific group of people. One might ask whether the group in question (black teenagers) had actually been asked whether they cared about this, or if it was just a well-meaning change imposed by outsiders. But if, indeed, it does make black teenagers more comfortable reading Mark Twain if they don't have to be constantly exposed to a really ugly slur, well - it didn't strike me as the greatest literary sin ever committed.

For another thing, words change all the time, and what they mean to people changes all the time. The n-word doesn't mean the same thing now as it did when Twain wrote, and carries a much more strongly loaded set of negative connotations now than it did then. Reading or hearing it is much more mentally intrusive to many readers today than it would have been then. So reading the n-word constantly in a Twain book today is not the same experience that it was then. I'm not sure, if the object is to have the same experience that Twain intended the reader to have, that censoring the word is any worse from that perspective than leaving it in.

I. Dall said...