Titty Lewis nor Ginge ever found names offensive

10th December 2010 at 00:00

The new Equality Act, which slid fairly quietly through Parliament, has, I am sure, very good intentions at its core. But, like so many areas of Government intervention, there is a heavy handedness that attempts to "regulate" our relationships with work colleagues, so that we are in danger of becoming exceedingly precious about our sensitivities.

I worry that much of what gives light to our everyday lives will be lost. It seems that one can choose to be offended at any turn and by anybody. There is a list of "protected characteristics" about which it is forbidden to jibe or jest.

My drama company tours schools in South Wales with a production about bullying, where we talk at length to the children afterwards about the difference between bullying and teasing, where teasing is an acceptable part of the human condition of joshing and badinage and bullying is when it crosses the line and becomes unacceptable.

So I would be the last person to have any truck with name-calling that has bullying, racist or any other overtones. However, it does concern me that the legislation championed by Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the previous government, puts at risk much that makes up the camaraderie of the workplace, the school yard and the community by making affectionate nicknames threatening and unacceptable.

In Wales, we have had for generations a gift for adapting people's names, using either a notable physical feature, their personal habits, jobs or pastimes. All done completely without malice and with mutual appreciation of wit at its best, or silliness at its worst.

My parents' generation were past masters of the genre, with friends who included: "Basketbum", no explanation needed; "Morgan Bucket", the origin of which I think had something to do with the shape of his head; and "Organ Morgan" (no relation to Bucket), whose nickname derived not from a reference to any anatomical attribute, but from his musical performances at Sunday chapel.

Best of all was "Titty" Lewis. He went through his whole life with this moniker - I've no idea what his real name was - because it was claimed that he was breastfed until he started school. There is no evidence to suggest he ever minded this nickname and, eventually, it was so universally used that no one took any notice of its origin or its connotations.

Then there was "Gobby Davies" - not, as one might think, a reference to his garrulousness, but because he started so many sentences with "I go'be honest".

The greengrocer was known as "Up-and-down Mike" because his prices varied so much from week to week. And, in my present town, an undertaker was called "Ted the Box", while one of our best-known publicans is referred to as "Fatty Keys".

Many of these people are long gone and with them, it seems, the ability to laugh at each other and ourselves. To be given a nickname within the community was a badge of affection and inclusivity rather than the reverse.

My children, however, continue the habit with each other and their friends. One daughter always calls her younger brother "Fatman", even though he is now very slim, because, as a toddler in a nappy, he resembled a sumo wrestler. He, on the other hand, calls her "Gimley", as her small stature and wild curly hair reminds him, he claims, of the troll-like character in The Lord of the Rings, and our youngest is known to everyone as "Titch" just because she was the last in the line.

A lifelong friend of my son is known as "The Ginge" because of his auburn locks, and another is called "Dodgy Dave" because he wheels and deals, even though his real name is Joe. Meanwhile, one of my daughter's circle is known as "Chainsaw Rhys" to differentiate him from the other Rhys whose skull didn't have an unfortunate collision with a piece of machinery.

All of these would now be forbidden, as they would come under Ms Harman's list of "protected characteristics". Yet I believe there is a vast difference between the affectionate bestowing of a nickname and persistent, vindictive name-calling that disregards the recipient's wishes. After all, nicknames haven't hurt Twiggy or Whoopi Goldberg, have they?

Maybe Harriet Harman should have visited Wales and met some of my community before she put the finishing touches to her Equality Bill.

Julie McGowan is a writer and director of Is it? Theatre Company.

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number

Comments

The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now