A question of etymology and sensibilities

While on a research trip last Sunday, I had an incredibly lovely non-traditional Sunday lunch (home-made pizza followed by brownies replaced the usual roast) with the minister of one of my case studies. Conversation turned at one point to the forthcoming crib service on Christmas Eve and the debate within the congregation regarding the involvement of the church’s teenagers. It emerged that some members of the congregation didn’t have an issue with the teenagers being involved again, more that they’d had a look at the proposed script and didn’t like some of the language used.

I steeled myself for some truly controversial vocabulary, and was slightly surprised to discover that the first word was in fact ‘crikey’. A dictionary was obtained to check whether this seemingly innocent word in fact had darker connotations. Turns out these older Christians had every reason to object – crikey is in fact an ‘alliterative substitute’ for Christ kill me.

So we moved on to ‘Cor Blimey’. (I have no idea what the play was about, only knowing that these two phrases were involved I imagine it must either be a vintage Ashes Test Match or some kind of Dickensian Christmas). Of course, this too has some connection to God in a blasphemous way – it’s derived from God blind me. The conclusion round the table was that perhaps the objectors had a point.

Fast-forward 18 hours and the British public were faced with a far more obvious use of unacceptable language – James Naughtie made a now infamous slip-up while introducing Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Radio 4’s flagship morning news programme. [If you’ve been living under a rock/outside Britain and don’t know what I’m talking about, swap the first letter of ‘culture’ with the first letter of ‘Hunt’…]

It caused outrage, of course, though the Twittersphere’s reaction was generally one of amusement. (Although is that because I have a tendency to only follow leftie-liberals like myself?) It also resulted in my dear friend Andy writing a post about whether swear words are ever acceptable. [Warning, it contains language which some – especially you BB – may find offensive.]

Twenty-four hours later and I’m still not sure what I think about it. My initial reaction was one of intense physical revulsion – stamping my foot and nearly dropping my phone. [I’d spotted a “Probably shouldn’t have published that… #blog” tweet at the end of my choir rehearsal, so thought I’d open it up & read it on the way home – I love my phone…] That word is one that I’d never use, even in a fit of temper. He’s right in that some words are perfect for screaming when you hit yourself with a hammer, but is there ever any need for the C word?

Thing is, it can’t always have had negative connotations, surely? No one can agree on its etymology, which doesn’t help. Tuesday’s The view from a broad column in the Guardian gives an example from a pre-1325 manuscript and even its use in the Canterbury Tales isn’t seen as particularly offensive – yet by the 1970’s it was seen as deeply offensive by feminists. Personally, I’m all in favour of the various campaigns that have been started to reclaim the word by women for its original meaning – why should an entirely pleasant bit of female anatomy be used as the worst insult in the English language?

I was a little concerned that I might be over-reacting (not unknown), so I quizzed my good chum Katie about it. In the process, she managed to get me to say the word twice – something she considers an achievement – but I won’t be writing it. She assured me that I wasn’t alone in my views (although she personally doesn’t have too much of an issue with it, as I learned while sitting in her car during the Bristol rush hour…) but agreed that she felt it was deeply offensive to women because of its anatomical connotations. That still doesn’t go any way to explaining why that word is so socially unacceptable, while its masculine counterparts are widely used and accepted. [I was about to say that they still wouldn’t be used in the pulpit & then remembered that at my church that’s not actually the case – given that the F word was used fairly recently and with good effect.]

Clearly I have no conclusions. On the one hand, I don’t see the point in making a fuss about a simple on-air slip of the tongue. On the other hand, I definitely don’t think it’s a word that should be in common usage – unless its negative meaning can be reversed. In general, I think people could simply learn a lot from discovering what words actually mean, how they came into existence and most of all, using them properly and meaningfully.

Take it or leave it

I have a tendency to take things rather personally – at least I pretend to take things personally. One friend caught on to my technique a couple of years ago and knows how to spot my ‘mock offended’ face and tone – calling me on it whenever I fake offence in their presence.

The last couple of evenings I’ve been out with some good friends – the kind of people I have a lot of fun with, who know me well and who I can say pretty much anything to. On both occasions there were comments directed at me that I could have found massively offensive and was faced the dilemma of whether to take offence, or simply leave it and let it go…

First up, a particularly good friend tells a particularly distressing (and hugely amusing) story about a wardrobe malfunction – the short version is that the underwire in one cup of her bra snapped while at work. This mishap went unnoticed (by her) until she looked down and realised things were a bit lopsided. My comment on this story was that I couldn’t understand how she didn’t feel that something was wrong, because I’d definitely notice pretty quickly.

Her response? She looked straight at me (with a mischievous twinkle in her eye) and retorted:
“well, your boobs are much bigger than mine, so that’s only logical!”
For a moment I hesitated, contemplated the mock offended face and then came to the conclusion that actually, she was right and I’m kind of proud of my assets, so it was ok – I’d simply agree.

Fast-forward 24 hours and I’m out with another good friend. We generally manage to throw insults at each other every 10 minutes or so, thus we have pretty thick skins when it comes to potentially offensive comments. Having had a convivial dinner with some half-price wine, we took a walk through some of the more exotic parts of London town. [En route, two criminal activities were hypothesised, but that’s a whole other story…]

Passing a rather pretentious club, my companion remarked:
“Neither of us are cool enough, or attractive enough to make it as hipsters…”
What can you say to that? Agree that the speaker is just as unattractive as yourself? Allow them to backtrack and dig a hole, eventually having to admit that it’s just them who’s ugly and you are in fact a stunning beauty? Take the moral high ground and simply pretend the words were never uttered?

I think I went with the latter. Some backtracking happened, but I genuinely wasn’t offended as it’s just the kind of derogatory thing either of us might have said, and to be fair, in the precise sense in which it was meant, it’s true. However, I’m starting to wonder if the fact that I’m still pondering this comment over a day later means that I was offended on some level…in the mean time I will simply rise above it. [Whilst storing it away until I can get my revenge on another occasion.]

Maintaining an air of dignity in the face of insults is clearly important, but so is returning the favour and getting your own back.

Intentional offence?

Sometimes I see something and my mind leaps to conclusions so absurd that I have to go back and take a second look. Like mis-reading words and inferring an inappropriate meaning.

Sometimes, it turns out that what I thought I’d seen was actually exactly what I thought it was…

Today I took a glance at the dummy page for our new work intranet (this has been a long time coming, so I was rather intrigued). One of the boxes on the side had a rather flashy gif that linked to our in-house e-mail guidelines:
“Lose friends and alienate people in one easy lesson – How not to e-mail” 

The gif moved from the image on the left, to the one on the right:

I looked once, thought that maybe I was seeing things, then looked again. Is it just me, or is that image giving me the finger? Is a Christian organisation’s intranet effectively swearing at its staff? Seems improbable, but it’s the only conclusion I can reach! Very bizarre.

Inappropriate? Possibly. But I still didn’t mention it when our team shared their feedback this afternoon. I think it’s likely that this little animation will bring a smile to my face for some time to come.