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.