Wednesday, 2 December 2015

What a Load of…..

I read this on Facebook posted by Deputy Sam Mezec:

“One of my colleagues in the States just got told off for saying "crap" in a speech when he was quoting a document. I accept that we shouldn't be swearing if it's blatantly gratuitous, but it was a mild one and it was from a totally relevant document in which the language was important. I really don't get how adults can get offended by such nonsense.”

Quite whether “crap” should be classed as swearing or not is debatable. Interestingly, bad language is generally divided into three categories: profanity (uses religious terms), obscenity (refers to sex) and scatology (refers to bodily waste). So we can see that “crap” falls into the latter category.

Collins Dictionary says that crap is classed as Vulgar Slang, and notes that “This word was formerly considered to be taboo, and it was labelled as such in previous editions of Collins English Dictionary. However, it has now become acceptable in speech, although some older or more conservative people may object to its use.”

This can be traced in Hansard, the transcript of the UK Parliament, where we note that it is initially frowned up, and then just passed by without comment.

HC Deb 18 July 1979– is the first mention of “crap” in the Commons. Mr Faulds was rebuked mildly by the Speaker, but not asked to withdraw his comment:

Mr. Faulds In my 14 years in this House I have never heard such absolute crap from anybody on any Bench in the House. However, because we want lively contributions, I hope that the hon. Member will join in on future occasions. I hope that what I said did not cause you any distress, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw) It did indeed. I think that the hon. Member could use other words.

Mr. Faulds I have a large vocabulary, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I promise that next time I shall choose my word with much more care.

HC Deb 17 February 1986 saw this exchange take place, with no rebuke from the Speaker, who was no doubt amazed to find the unusually pairing of “egregious” and “crap” in the same sentence.

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham): That is not the case in my relationship with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock). In all my 15 years in the House, I have never read a piece of more egregious crap than his amendment. If the House passed that, it should be ashamed of itself.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor) As someone said, follow that!

11 June 1986 saw a debate in which Bob Geldof was quoted, but not, I need hardly add, when he said “give us you f***ing money”.:

Mr. Cambell-Savours What is the Foreign Secretary's response to the comments of Sir Robert Geldof, who described the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech at the United Nations illustrating Britain's position on help for those in need in Africa as a lot of old crap?—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker Order. I know that Mr. Geldof said that, but it is not a very elegant word to use in this Chamber.

Sir Geoffrey Howe I regard the use of such language by Mr. Geldof as unhelpful, just as it is even more unhelpful on the part of the hon. Gentleman. It is only one aspect of the character of Mr. Geldof that has made him widely admired around the world for the part that he has played.

HC Deb 14 March 1988 saw the Deputy Speaker still valiantly trying to flag up the word as not acceptable:

Mr. Michie It has cost £41,800,000, from an estimate of £29 million. It has cost £41 million for a luxury building to house the Secretary of State's staff so that they can bring more and more diabolical legislation to rob the poor—[AN HON. MEMBER: "The Secretary of State is to have his own bathroom."] Yes, he needs his own bathroom to have a bath every five minutes because of the crap that we have to put up with

Mr. Deputy Speaker Order.

Mr. Michie I have no doubt that the people who will suffer from the legislation will get to know exactly what this is about. I shall not apologise to them and say, "We fought the good fight in the House," because, frankly, we have not been given the opportunity to do so.

In 1989, it was Labour MP Tony Banks who was rebuked, but he only repeated it.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) It is a disgrace. Utter crap.

Mr. Speaker Order. That is not the kind of language that we should hear in the House.

Mr. Banks It is utter crap.

Mr. Speaker Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what he has said.

In a debate from April 1991, we have this rather nice topical quite. Gerald Ratner, for readers who do not know, was the Chief Executive of the High Street chain of Ratners Jewellery stores. At a dinner with other businessman, as an attempt at levity, he described one of its products as “total crap” and worth less than a packet sandwich. Widely reported, it cost him his job, and plunged the chain £122.3m into the red.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith) Since Gerald Ratner has made a fortune selling "total crap"—to use his words—may we have a debate next week on consumer protection?

HC Deb 12 December 1989 saw the first time Dennis Skinner, often nick-named, “The Beast of Bolsover” uses the term “crap”:

Sir Peter Emery The hon. Gentleman has only just come in.

Mr. Skinner Yes, I have just come in. I spend a lot of time in this place. I was here earlier, between 2.30 and 5.30. I did not see the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery). The person who was sitting where he is sitting now was his old friend the ex-Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). I did not see the hon. Gentleman move up and let the ex-Prime Minister sit in his customary place, so the hon. Gentleman should not give me all that crap about how long he has been here.

By 2nd December 1991, Dennis Skinner’s use of the term “crap” had been so frequent that the Speaker ruled on it:

Mr. Speaker I call the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

Mr. Skinner In view of the fact that you, Mr. Speaker, have been checking the records lately about what is unparliamentary or otherwise, I ask you to check the word "crap". It has been drawn to my attention that the Tory party has recently received £25,000 from Gerald Ratner. We do not want £25,000-worth of crap being dished out in here, do we? Or is it that Gerald Ratner will be put in charge of propaganda for the Tory party?

Mr. Speaker I rule that that is definitely an unparliamentary word in this Chamber

That did not hinder Dennis Skinner, and in 2001 and 2002, he is in fine fettle: By this time, the changing weight given to the term, as we saw in the Collins dictionary, meant that the Speaker no longer intervened.

HC Deb 22 January 2001

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) What a load of crap!
Mr. Smith Well, I would put it rather more delicately than my hon. Friend.

HC Deb 13 June 2002

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) What a load of crap.
Mr. Cook I am not quite sure how that will he reported in Hansard tomorrow. I was about to begin by welcoming the support of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for what I am trying to do.

In HC Deb 21 March 2001, we also had:

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I want to talk about animal welfare on behalf of farmers because there seems to be a mood abroad that farmers do not care. The press have indicated that some of my local farmers are weeping for their bank balances, and one farmer this morning described that quite simply as "offensive crap". He is right to use exactly those words. Farmers care enormously for the welfare of their animals

Let it be thought that Labour had a monopoly, Oliver Letwin, sometime Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Conservatives, had this to say in 2003, which went unrebuked:

Mr. Letwin I think that the hon. Gentleman will reflect in a moment that that might not have been a wise intervention. I shall quote again from an article in Constabulary: For many months, in private, the most senior officers in the land told Mr Blunkett their opinion of this central manifesto of the Government's attack on crime. That is referring to the national policing plan. I apologise in advance for this, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that what I am about to say is parliamentary language, but it is in a quotation. The article continues, One chief constable captured in a single vivid sentence the message his colleagues conveyed: "Frankly, sir, with respect, this is crap.

And the use of the term also reached the House of Lords, unrebuked, in 2002:

HL Deb 22 April 2002

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: For once I agree with Mr Greg Dyke, the BBC's Director-General, if your Lordships will forgive me for repeating some of his language, that it is time for the BBC to "cut the crap". If it did that, it would not need anything like its present budget of some £2,500 million and would avoid becoming an expensive irrelevance. If it did that, it would also return to its former and rightful place in the affections of the British people.

We can see a trajectory in which the word “crap” is much more of a taboo word, to the modern use of the word, in which case it is little more than a vulgar colloquialism. By early 2002, it was considered acceptable to mention in Parliamentary debate without earning a rebuke from the speaker. It has lost its past intensity.

Robert Moore has observed that “ slang lexemes are commonly described as ephemeral and characteristic of specific social subgroups, whereas swearwords are taboo lexemes that are widely known in the speech communities wherein they occur, do not change quickly from year to year, and are considered taboo by virtue of their semantic link to emotionally charged entities such as human waste and sexuality.”

While the term “shit” retains its taboo status, and has not changed much from year to year, the same cannot be said of the term “crap” which has “softened” in use over the years to become little more than a vulgar slang synonym for rubbish. The same process can be seen in other low taboo words such as “idiot”.

It is perhaps not surprising that in Jersey, where Parliamentary traditions lag probably around 10 years or more behind acceptable practice in the UK, that Deputy Mezec’s colleague was rebuked by the Bailiff.

But I would add a codicil. While linguistic change should be a guide to how terms change and become more acceptable in society, especially where they lose intensity, and become detached from their original context - the argument that the Deputy was quoting from a letter, and therefore it was legitimate to use the phrase, does not hold water.

If a letter had used the “n-“ word to describe black people as a term of abuse, I am sure the Deputy would have thought twice before quoting it verbatim, not least because despite Parliamentary privilege, it would be so racially offensive and sensitive that simply alluding to it would have been sufficient. 

The argument, however, that the term was now considered to be a relatively mild insult, and hence could convey the tone of the letter better than avoiding doing so, was a good one, especially given the linguistic changes to the term that have taken place over the last 50 years.

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