It's only words, but sometimes the banter hurts

28th April 2006 at 01:00
The idea was that it would keep me calm and occupied for the four-hour flight, leaving my husband free to enjoy the movie without my constantly plucking at his sleeve and making him remove his earphones so that I could ask important questions like "are we nearly there yet?"

The book of a hundred crosswords would be soothing and non-taxing to a Times 2 puzzle aficionado, the lack of oxygen would slow me down and anyway all the answers were in the back if I got stuck.

But if my husband had envisaged an uninterrupted viewing of The Legend of Zorro, he was to be disappointed. I spent the whole of the flight checking the back of the book, gasping in frustration, plucking at his sleeve and muttering: "I don't believe it!" The clues were loose at best, and the definitions plain wrong most of the time. Instead of whiling away the time happily, I grew more and more exasperated.

It's only a puzzle book? Be worried. Be very, very worried. It's probably symptomatic of our increasing laziness in the way we handle language. And that can have repercussions. Take Tiger Woods, who landed himself in big trouble because he was reported to have said: "As soon as I got on the green, I was a spaz." The disability lobby, rightly, jumped on him for that, and he apologised.

I can sympathise with Tiger, though. I suspect that he used the phrase without a thought for the origin, in much the same way we use a dead metaphor like "the leg of the table" without truly registering it.

In one respect, Woods's metaphor could be seen as a hopeful sign. It was said without malice, and probably out of naivety. It perhaps shows that the word has lost its power in common use. We invest words with power when we see them as taboo. The stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce understood this and his blanket use of expletives was designed to defuse them, to make them commonplace and to strip them of their power.

To a lesser extent, Billy Connolly's act also derives its impact from the use of taboo words. Continual use will make them less sensational and rob them of their ability to move people - and then he's going to need some new material. Defusing taboo words can be seen as a good thing. It's a difficult path to tread, as Lenny Bruce found to his cost. But making a deliberate, sustained attempt to rinse clean dirty words is not the same as using language that is hurtful through laziness or sloppiness.

Back at college, I was discussing with my class how the writings of schizophrenics seem to possess similar language qualities to poetry. I noticed one of my learners looking fidgety. Working in mental health, she pointed out that it's important we don't label people by their condition. I knew that - I knew that it was improper to call someone a diabetic, for example, when it is simply someone who suffers from diabetes - but I slipped up here. I had labelled those who suffer from schizophrenia by their condition.

We had an interesting class discussion about political correctness and language use. Most of my HNCs were new to this line of thought, but they were gradually persuaded that language shapes our world and our perceptions.

And me? I'm reassured to find that, apart from bumper crossword books, it seems we still care about language and its use. As the Bee Gees sang, it's only words - but words are all we have.

Dr Carol Gow lectures at Dundee College.

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