If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 30 August 2010

What do you read, my Lord?

Words, words, words.

All my life, I have loved words. I studied their history and derivations, and I taught 18 years' worth of young people how to use them correctly - and I hope usefully too. I loved Viz's letter calling for the banning of Alphabetti Spaghetti on the grounds that the foodstuff could be used to spell rude words. I thought that was parody, but yesterday, in a fabulous example of life imitating art, the News Of The World got in on the act too.

THE News of the World is spelling trouble for Scrabble bosses - after we found the game allows players to use vile racist insults.

We discovered several highly offensive terms - including the N word - in the Collins Scrabble Dictionary and on the iPhone and Facebook versions of the game that can be used by any age group.

Apart from "n****r" and other abusive words for ethnic groups, crude swear words like "f***", "c***" and "w***" are also allowed to be used in the popular board game.

Don't you love the careful, fastidious and family friendly way that the newspaper avoids using any 'rude' terms - this, from the paper that is so well-known for its fascination with extra-marital sex that it is widely known as the 'News of the Screws'?

It's not quite the Alphabetti Spaghetti thing, as the paper isn't claiming that Scrabble should be banned because people could use the tiles to make naughty or offensive words. It's worried that a dictionary and two other applications regard the words it lines up as offensive as being proper English words suitable for an English word game. Let's work this through, using perhaps the least controversial of the words it politely asterisks out: wank.

Is wank a word in the English language? Clearly it is. Do people say wank quite frequently? In my experience, yes. Should people be allowed to use wank as a word when they play Scrabble? The NoTW isn't too clear on this, so let's assume they don't want to interfere in people's private word-games ("Nanny State Gorn Mad") and say: yes, they should be allowed. So what's the problem?

Well, Collins for one is saying that these words are OK! And iPhone! And Facebook! These corrupters of young minds and stirrers of racial hatred say that words like wank are part of the English language! How very dare they?

But they are. As are a whole host of other words that the NoTW might like to see banned for decency's sake. I have a very clear memory of being in the Upper Sixth at school (yes, really), and spending a private study session with a mate looking up naughty words in the OED. The school had the full 13-volume version of the Dictionary, published in 1933. This, in accordance with the mores of the time, did not contain swear words. I loved having the time to look into it, as one word led to another and half an hour could pass before I realised where I was - but when we looked up 'fuck' or anything like that, we were disappointed. The logic behind excluding such words was, of course, ridiculous. But in 1972, the OED brought out the first Supplement of new words that had entered the language since 1933. And this one was compiled under the dangerously modish rule that, if English people used it, it was an English word. I think the first Supplement was A-N, which the astute reader will realise contained 99% of all known swearies. (We were destined to wait until 1976 for 'twat' and 'pillock', but by then I was long gone.) There were six of us huddled over the new arrival, giggling at seeing 'fuck' in print for the first time - and the definition, whew! - when our English teacher walked by. He explained that all these words were just part of our magnificent language, and that our interest in seeing them written down (and our unseemly giggling) marked us out as immature idiots who clearly hadn't ever done the thing we were giggling over. I think the word 'crass' was involved. Point taken, Mr Burke.

So, what would the NoTW have us do? Play Scrabble, but with nice words. And works of reference aimed at assisting players should frown, and say that although 'wank' is an English word, at a pinch, you shouldn't be using it in a nice parlour game, and if you won using a word like that on a Triple Word Score it would be a bit like cheating.

Sorry, chaps. One of the major changes in 20C linguistics was to make it clear that a language belongs to whoever uses it, and all attempts to regulate or control it are doomed to failure. Descriptive, not prescriptive. Look how successful the Académie Française has been in keeping foreign terms out of French. As I was saying to my mate, while eating un bifteck last weekend, while wearing les jeans and un pull.


  1. Always been a fan of a bit of rosbif meself.

    Oh, and I too 'write' like all those bods you write like Richard. Or do I mean 'as do'?

    Yes, language evolves. Embrace change or become dead while you're still alive. OK, we've lost 'that begs the question'. If it 'comprises of' so what?

    Words are the tokens of the wise and the currency of fools.

    Mmmm...but what precisely was the original intent behind that remark...?

  2. I think the News of the World are right. They have always been good at exposing awful goings on with the object of making the World a better place. Rude Word Scrabble is the thin end of the wedge. I think they should campaign to have rude words banned in songs - and books - and films - and tattoos. Anyone who doesn't agree is clearly not a real human being and should not really be accommodated in a civilised society like ours. Perhaps we could stone them.

  3. Good to see the full range of opinions in the comments. I'm rather tempted to agree with the NoTW, on the grounds that, if people use these words in their private moments, then they must think them - and if they think them, they are evil.

    For one thing, if we could completely and effectively ban a word like 'nigger' from being used ever, by anyone, then racism would disappear, right? And banning 'wank' would mean that all young men would grow up with perfect eyesight and no kittens would die.

  4. It may just be me, but I reckon that there are easier, quicker and more portable ways of delivering a vile racist insult - if one is inclined to do so - than spelling it out in a board game.

    On the other hand, writing it down without context or target - even if using preprinted plastic tiles - could be considered not to actually meet the definition of an insult at all. Really, without the faux outrage, it could just mean that one is aware of how to spell the word, and that it had some historical relevance.

    Mind you, I do like the idea of being able to watch your opponent bang "zygote" down on a triple word score, then scream at them: "NoTW rules! Vile and gratuitous reference to a part of the sexual reproductive process - that's as bad as saying the 'F' word!". And before their very eyes, you draw a thick black line through the entry in your Scrabble dictionary and refuse to let them have the points. For extra kudos, add: "Now try and make another word with those letters. Wanker."

    Of course, it is possible that some people play Scrabble for fun, and wouldn't dream of laying out "fuckwit" in front of Aunty Mabel, even if, technically, the rules allowed it. My mum probably would, though - she's quite competitive about parlour games and, being old, she's kinda heard it all before.

    Ahem, anyway, for the grown-ups in the audience, a recommendation - The Little Book Of Essential English Swear Words. I keep a well-thumbed copy on my desk at work. Perhaps not as complete as the Viz Profanisaurus, but funnier. Doubly humorously, Amazon UK have even given it the "Look Inside" option, so people OF ANY AGE can read some very bad (or good, depending on your perspective) words indeed. Including, if you scroll down to the adverts for other books in the series:

    "When you go abroad, it's useful to know whether the policeman shoving his truncheon up your arse is calling you a bastard or a c***. This book has all the words they forgot to mention at school."
    (Hmmm, where I went to school, they did get a fair old mention - albeit not in lessons, as a rule. In all honesty, I can think of more useful things - such as knowing the phrase for "Please take your truncheon out of my arse, sir" - but I guess it never hurts to know exactly how much the plod in question dislikes you).

    I think the NoTW ought to leave second-raters like Scrabble alone and take up the defense of right-thinking folk everywhere by having Amazon SHUT DOWN NOW! Or, of course, they could just tell their hack to wipe the spittle off and remember the Prozac next time.

  5. That book is a gem. "If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then offensiveness is in the ear of the listener." Couldn't agree more.

    I used to have some friends who liked to play Rude Scrabble, i.e. all words had to be rude, and it was up to the player to prove they were. The challenge was twofold - trying to make rude words from the available tiles was one, and trying to convince the others that 'sandwich' had disgusting connotations was another. It made you very creative. I never used 'zygote', but it would have been a winner.

  6. I gave up on Rude Word Scrabble when the lady who later became my wife refused to let me have 'bed' as a rude word - the injustice still haunts me.

  7. Obviously hadn't caught up with the 'Sun' definition of 'bed', then:

    BEDv.t. To fuck, only we can't say that cos we is a family paper, innit. See Charms, Assets, Particulars

    It's unjust, but kind of touchingly innocent. I assume the several years of marriage since then have taught her the proper meaning of the verb 'table-end'?


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