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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 08:09 GMT 09:09 UK
Six Forum: Political correctness and the English language
John Ayto, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, answered your questions about the English language in a live forum for the BBC's Six O'clock news, presented by Manisha Tank.

  Click here to watch the forum.  

Home Office minister John Denham has been criticised by the police for using the phrase "nitty gritty" because of race relations rules.

Mr Denham used the phrase during a debate at the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth.

He was told that police officers could face disciplinary charges for saying "nitty gritty" because it dates from the slavery era.

Some rank-and-file officers say the rules about language have become "a minefield" and have made them inhibited in doing their job.


Manisha Tank:

Welcome to this 6 O'clock News Forum with me, Manisha Tank. It seems that you need to watch what you say. Home Office Minister, John Denham, has been cautioned at a Police Federation conference in Bournemouth for using a politically incorrect term - nitty-gritty - but there's some debate over where it came from and even if it's non-PC at all. Police officers say they work to a long list of words they just can't use.

So has political correctness gone mad and does it actually reduce our freedom of expression. Here to answer your statements and questions is John Ayto, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang.

First of all let's have a look at interpretation of these words first of all. We got an e-mail from Kim in the UK: How absolutely pathetic. In my concise Oxford Dictionary it says that the phrase nitty-gritty is of unknown origin. So exactly what connotation to the slave trade [and that was the accusation in this particular case] does it have?

Andrew Carter writes in: The Oxford Dictionary indicates that the origin of the phrase is uncertain. The earliest use of the phrase can only be only traced back to the 1950s. How can the Police Federation be so sure it was a bad word to use?

Emily, UK says: If you were to ask a thousand people from ethnic minorities what nitty-gritty means, I bet you wouldn't find one who was offended, so why all the fuss?

John Ayto:

No, I'm sure that last comment is absolutely correct - certainly in this country. I must admit I'd never heard of this usage before and perhaps more significantly, the leading American authority on historical American slang has never heard of it either.

What it is supposed be is that how the story goes is that nitty-gritty originated as a term for the grit that accumulated in the bilges of slave ships and that therefore it has particularly painful connotations to Afro-Americans and to Blacks in general. But, as I said, that may be true, but I have never seen any evidence that it is true so the case remains open as far as I can see.

Manisha Tank:

And this is exactly the problem with some of these phrases - it's very difficult to find out where they came from.

Peter Nelson in the USA has written in: While looking up nitty-gritty on the Web, I found a suggestion that the word picnic may have had its origins as a slave-lynching party. What other words have derogatory meanings that we're perhaps unaware of?

Bill, UK writes in: Isn't true that you can take a piece of slang and you can easily 10 different definitions of its origin? It's also quite likely that none of these 10 will actually be correct.

John Ayto:

That's quite true and it's particularly difficult of course with slang, which is pre-eminently a spoken medium. With the more standard types of English vocabulary, we have a long record of them in print and in writing which we can go back to and trace right back to its beginnings. But so much slang starts off with spoken language and sometimes never gets into the written records. So it's particular hard to track down where a lot of it comes from. I must admit I haven't heard of this story about picnic and the relating of it to lynching parties - that's a rather lurid suggestion but I'd be interested to follow it up.

But as far as words having derogatory or unsettling meanings that we're not aware of - that happens quite a lot. There are quite a lot of them lying around in English which are potential traps, if one only knew about them. It's not uncommon to call somebody a berk if they think they're behaving pretty stupidly but that goes back to a rhyming slang term - Berkeley Hunt - which is a rhyme for extremely rude word which people probably would not wish to think they're perpetuating when they say berk.

Manisha Tank:

Tag from the USA: Will we be punished for using the phrase "rule of thumb" which dates back to a law that said you could not beat your wife with implement thicker than thumb?

Text message from Anthony in London: I don't find any of the phrases police have avoid offensive or racist. What are police meant to say without getting into trouble? What next?

John Ayto:

Going back to the first question. No, the good thing is you won't be punished for saying that. Language is a very democratic thing and you can say whatever you like. If you offend somebody you might get a punch on the nose. But fortunately we haven't yet reached the stage where there are actual legal penalties for using words that are disapproved of by the Government. If any government was unwise enough to attempt to do that, I think it would end in chaos.

Traditionally, we've had our own self-imposed rules which work by social contract. Now it's political-correct things - words to do with race - 100 years or 50 years ago it was words to do with sex and there was a sort of agreed convention that you didn't mention those words in particular company.

Manisha Tank:

In effect we're talking about an evolution of people over time and the kind of language they use. Samantha has written in: Some people suggest that the use of slang words results in the decay of the English language. What's your opinion on this?

John Ayto:

I disagree. All languages need lots of different modes for communicating in different situations. There are situations in which we need to speak informally amongst our friends - perhaps to let off steam and you can't use very formal stilted language for that. Also it plays a very important role in social cohesion - people within groups like to form their own particular slang to identify each other as members.

Manisha Tank:

On that note, obviously language brings us all together and you mention that language is a very democratic thing. N Moran has written in: Where does the authority and democratic mandate actually come from to declare such limitations on language? In George Orwell's 1984, restrictive use of language was used to control the ability of people to think for themselves.

John Ayto:

Where do they come from - well, as far as British, English speakers go, I think it comes from a generalised feeling of what is appropriate and correct. We in this country have never taken very kindly to having rules imposed on us by prescriptive bodies. In France, for example, famously they've got the Academie francaise which issues edicts on what is proper French and what isn't. At various times over the last 300 - 400 years, people have tried to start up similar bodies in this country and they've never worked and they just had to give up on them because nobody paid any attention to them. We're very independent about our language.

Manisha Tank:

Steve in England: This is absolutely crazy. Isn't the English language a hybrid, taking phrases and words from many sources? Let's just get back to commonsense.

John Ayto:

I couldn't agree more. You've put it in a nutshell there Steve. I might in the context of this argument draw attention to one or two West African words which have come into English by way of using the slave trade essentially as a vector. The juke of jukebox is a West African word. It may well be that jazz was originally a West African word and I hope nobody is going to suggest that we ought to stop saying jazz.

Manisha Tank:

Graham Moore, Belfast: Is they're pressure on dictionary compilers, such as yourself, to remove these un-PC words?

Obviously your dictionary is slang, so perhaps you can include the lot of it.

John Ayto:

Yes, as far as dictionaries of slang goes, I think the pressure is the other way - to include as many of them as possible.

I'm not aware of any within this particular narrow context we're talking of now where pressure has been exerted. It is true to say that in the past people have tried to influence dictionaries to exclude words thought to be derogatory to Jews. And of course going back further still, the great huge Oxford English Dictionary famously excluded the four letter words until quite recently.

Manisha Tank:

I'm sure parents out there are quite for that - children are looking them up all the time as school. Russ Glenham, UK: Where do we draw the line between phrases or words that are genuinely offensive and meant to be so and phrases that have a limited or non-existent cultural resonance?

I think this incident with John Denham is probably indicative of what's coming across in that particular e-mail.

John Ayto:

Yes, I think the only ultimate answer is to try and cultivate sufficient sensitivity about language so that you can operate both as a speaker and a listener in a sympathetic way. As a speaker don't try to give offence - as a listener don't see offence given where perhaps it wasn't intended. So that sort of co-operation of conversation is necessary, I think.

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