Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can really hurt you

A friend of mine wrote to me yesterday: “A sentence in this morning’s newspaper tells us all we need to know on this subject: ‘The RAF’s first transgendered fighter pilot is to have her own sperm frozen.’ (italics mine)”

Actually, this sentence is so multi-faceted that it works on many different levels, telling us all we need to know about more than one subject.

The obvious one is the future battle-worthiness of our armed forces in general and the RAF in particular.

As someone who has never been called upon to go into battle I’m fascinated by the men who are. What motivates them to go over the top into machinegun fire? Fight to the last bullet? Fly into one dogfight after another, knowing that the odds in favour of survival are dwindling away with each take-off?

Take Douglas Bader, for example. That RAF fighter pilot was a great ace during the Second World War. The Group Captain is credited with 20 solo victories, four shared ones, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged.

He was a hero by anyone’s standards, but few other men have ever had such standards. For Bader was a double amputee, having lost both his legs in 1931. He was discharged then, but insisted on returning to the frontline squadrons when the war started.

Now there was a man who didn’t need an excuse to sit out that war. No one in his right mind would have accused him of cowardice had he stayed on the ground.

Yet he didn’t. Why?

Love of his country must have been the most obvious motive, but I’m sure there were others as well. Pride had to be one of them – not in the sense of hubris, which is one of the cardinal sins, but in the sense of esprit de corps, which is one of the martial virtues.

By all accounts, soldiers, and especially those in the elite branches of service such as the RAF, go into battle not just for God, king and country, but also for the proud fraternity of their comrades.

Some of them may not be believers, monarchists or even patriots, but esprit de corps alone is enough motivation. Even if unsure that heroic death will earn them immortality, they have no doubt it will earn them the admiration of their comrades, their unit, the RAF at large – and of the whole nation.

Now how do you suppose they would feel if they knew that the RAF has become the laughingstock of the nation, rather than its pride? How do you think Douglas Bader would have felt?

Yet the sentence that caught my friend’s eye goes a long way towards making the RAF a butt of silly jokes, not least my own. Soldiers can handle danger; what they can’t handle is mockery.

How willing will our future heroes be to join the RAF knowing they might fly to a likely death in the company of a freaky side show freezing ‘her own sperm’? And should some of the esprit de corps evaporate, what effect will it have on the defence of the realm?

Never in the field of human conflict was so much damage done to so many by so few words, to paraphrase ever so slightly.

As a lifelong student of language, I am in general fascinated by the capacity of words to destroy with a laudable economy of means. Float something like liberté, egalité, fraternité up in the air and a whole civilisation can go up in smoke.

As to a few words telling us all we need to know, they can do so even if we don’t understand the words.

For example, you probably don’t have a clue what on earth these nine words mean: “Ofiteri de politie in civil opereaza in aceasts zona”.

Yet, when they appear on a Metropolitan Police sign put up in Covent Garden during the Christmas shopping rush, they indeed tell us, as a minimum, all we need to know about one complex problem, that of immigration.

These words are the Romanian for ‘plainclothes policemen operating in this area’. Since the message isn’t repeated in any other language, it has to be aimed at one group only: monolingual Romanian pickpockets.

The Met clearly knows that picking pockets in London is a profession almost exclusively reserved for arrivals from Romania, our fellow member of the European Union.

Equally obvious is the fact that the same message wouldn’t have a similarly deterrent effect if it were inscribed in English, which is after all the official language of this member of the European Union.

For the Romanian Artful Dodgers have no English. What they do have is the unrestricted right to come to Britain in unlimited numbers – all to the accompaniment of even our supposedly conservative broadsheets bleating about immigrants enriching our nation.

Well, they certainly don’t enrich those members of our nation whose pockets they pick. Nor do they enrich bank ATMs and their customers: almost 100 per cent of all crime against cash machines is committed by Romanian monoglots.

Far be it from me to commit the linguistic fallacy of claiming that the sentence ‘most pickpockets and ATM criminals are Romanians’ means the same as ‘most Romanians are pickpockets and ATM criminals.’

I’m sure they aren’t, although this certainty is based on a general sense of statistical probability rather than any hard data.

But still, those nine words in Covent Garden open up all sorts of paths into all sorts of areas: our immigration policy, EU membership, modernity, a civilisation in crisis.

Mercifully, I don’t even have to tread those paths. Those few words I’ve mentioned indeed tell you all you need to know.

One question does need an answer though: how likely are those Romanian pickpockets to be transgender women freezing their own sperm?

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