In the past, whenever a word was unutterable it was usually for a discernible reason. For instance, some Jews spell G*d this way because of a biblical commandment they take literally and I’m not sure correctly (‘God’ isn’t the name of God not to be taken in vain).
Each society has always had its own taboos, certain words that just can’t be used in public, especially in mixed company. These aren’t chiselled in stone – some words that used to be regarded as perfectly neutral may become offensive, and vice versa.
For example, various race-related words effortlessly flow from one category to the other. Thus, at the time the word ‘negro’ was a stylistically neutral descriptive term the word ‘black’ was deemed pejorative.
Then a flip-flop occurred, and ‘black’ became an acceptable term for a while, until it was replaced by ‘African American’ in the States and ‘Afro-Caribbean’ here. Meanwhile not only the word ‘negro’ was stigmatised, but even its remote homophones began to give people fits.
Hence in 1999, David Howard, an aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., lost his job for having described a budget as ‘niggardly’. Rather than being incensed, he offered an abject apology, saying he had learned from the incident.
What he learned is that “An African American has to think about colour all the time.” I hope that’s not the case, but even if so this isn’t the reason to penalise the use of an old English word merely because it vaguely sounds like a racial insult.
To be fair, it’s not just racial terms that may offend. For example, the widespread four-letter obscenity was regarded as unfit for use in public media until Kenneth Tynan broke the taboo in a 1965 TV show.
Now one can hardly turn the TV on without hearing the word and its numerous cognates bandied about. It’s now used as a common intensifier, and only the colloquial term for female genitalia still hasn’t made an appearance on a chat show – but don’t hold your breath.
While the F-word is now common currency, the M-word (I mean ‘man’, not the longer American word starting with ‘mother’) has become not only undesirable but actionable, as Radio 2 talk-show host Jeremy Vine found out the other day.
Talking to a doctor about fashionable Victorian ailments, Mr Vine joked on air about suffering from ‘man flu’. This was a humorous reference to a popular term based on the correct observation that men tend to exaggerate the severity of even mild symptoms.
Mr Vine was thereby demonstrating one of the finest assets of the English: the ability to laugh at themselves (a talent, incidentally, not widely shared by our EU partners, such as the French and the Germans).
It takes a superhumanly acute vision to discern any offence in that remark, especially since Mr Vine was only mocking himself, and he wasn’t going to take umbrage. But one should never underestimate the heightened sensitivity of our public, trained to express self-righteous outrage at, well, anything.
Sure enough, someone took offence and filed a plaintive report under the BBC’s Equality and Diversity Code, of which Mr Vine was supposedly in breach.
The BBC promptly investigated the complaint and, amazingly, found no transgression in Mr Vine’s remark because “Jeremy was clearly making fun of himself”.
That misses the point by a mile. For this exoneration implicitly acknowledges that the word ‘man’ is generally offensive, though not yet in this particular context. In other words, the avalanche is gathering momentum and before long the word will be regarded as criminal in any context whatsoever.
In anticipation of this development, I suggest that our neo-totalitarians follow the lead of their typological predecessors in the Soviet Union, who perfected the art of criminalising language.
Thus, when Lavrentiy Beria was executed in 1953, every subscriber to the Soviet Encyclopaedia was sent a circular ordering that the article on Beria be cut out and replaced with the enclosed article on the Bering Strait.
Just about everyone (including my grandfather) complied, for the consequences of disobedience would have been catastrophic. Our government can’t yet issue a plausible threat along those lines, but it could build up to it.
It could start by issuing a guidance, similar to the one issued in 2013, clarifying the meaning of the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, which until then hadn’t required a clarification. Either word, we were told, could now describe a person of either sex, which effectively made both words meaningless.
The new guidance could go a bit further by stipulating that the word ‘man’ is henceforth null and void, to be replaced in every dictionary by something that really rolls off the tongue, say ‘a person choosing the male gender for self-identification’.
A small fine for non-compliance would get the ball rolling nicely, and in a year or two a mandatory prison sentence could be introduced. Sorry, I mean persondatory.