In the cut and thrust of social life, we often divide human behaviour into colloquial types in order to make sense of it and express approval or disapproval.
There are loads of examples, such as work-shy, couch potato, harridan, good egg and some we are discouraged from articulating as politically incorrect, such as poof, although I believe that one is okay for a gay person to use. How odd is that?
Is it a problem, these constant attempts to insert social rules into our language? Well I suppose it has always been a consequence of social norms, however, as far as I can see, problems arise when the norms become political and consciously directed to strangle public debate and the free expression of personal fears, frustrations and dislikes - even at an interpersonal level.
In the UK we have one particularly powerful agency which has always involved itself in these political language games - the BBC. Which of course is a thorn in the side of anyone who finds certain modes of expression convey their attitude better than those certified as okay by the BBC.
Harridan is a good example for at least two reasons.
Firstly, it isn’t yet politically incorrect, although it has enough potential to use as an example, because sooner or later the official situation may change when bloody harridans decide they don’t like it.
Secondly, it is both useful and pejorative. We need pejorative terms such as harridan if we are to express mild disapproval of a certain type of behaviour. In this case the habitual intransigence of bossy older women, but I suppose even the definition could change.
Could we have male harridans? I don’t see why not and I can certainly think of one or two who would fit the bill should the word develop in that direction. It would then become gender neutral so who could possibly disapprove?
The word as we use it now may convey biased or even bigoted disapproval to the ears of some with officially thin skins, but without the pejorative touch it isn’t accurate and to my mind that’s important. We need colloquial accuracy – words to express our day to day attitude to certain types of behaviour.
Ah but there’s the rub. We are evolving a society where any kind of disapproval outside official sanction is less and less likely to be tolerated. One can be jailed for using words in ways which lie beyond the boundary of official tolerance. These of course tend to be viciously unpleasant racial jibes rather than comments on behaviour, but free speech is thereby denied. A step has been taken.
Is it right, in the sense of is it healthy? No of course it isn’t - Voltaire taught us that lesson. It's taking a while to learn though.
I blame Harriet Harman – bloody harridan.