Monday, 19 December 2011

Can I say that?

From Wikipedia

Suppose I call someone a beige bastard – does that make me some kind of skin-colour racist? And which is the most objectionable word, beige or bastard – or is it the phrase? I know which ought to be the most objectionable word, but is it?

How about pale bastard, or buff bastard? How about sable bastard – is that racist intent with uncommon wording? Or would too many have to look up the word sable?

Actually it’s not the word bastard, but the context isn’t it? The context – ie the target of the insult can be officially offensive or not - it depends. The word bastard hardly matters out of context, because who cares about bastards these days?

I suppose if I call someone a Nick Clegg, it’s an acceptable insult whatever the racial situation. Vicious but acceptable.


Mark Wadsworth said...

You just did.

A K Haart said...

MW - but out of context.

Sam Vega said...

I think the key here is indeed the term "bastard", because it operates in this context as a signifier that there is the intention to offend through a reference to the qualities of the person referred to. It gains its power from the unspoken term "black bastard" lurking behind it. If you call a black man an x bastard his first thought will rightly be whether you are just using the term x as a substitute for black, and moreover trying to demonstrate that you have a bigger vocabulary.

The same would apply to a woman who you called "A nice piece of x", or an effeminate gay man referred to as a "screaming x".

Phrases, like words, have a history.

A K Haart said...

SV - I see it as mostly context. You can say almost anything to anyone in the right context. It's a weakness of blogging because context can be ambiguous.

Sam Vega said...

Yes, I agree. Hence the attempts to use emoticons, etc., and the frequent episodes of flaming and abuse that we see. There is also linguistic historical context, however, which must be taken into account; diachronic as well as synchronic. I am merely talking about one type of context.