“A Mughal prince named Salim
Fell head-over-heels with a dream-
Who would later feature
In a melodrama extreme!
Then Emperor Akbar said
I would rather my son were dead
Than wed to a whore
So he arranged for
A wedding with Nur Jahan instead.”
From the Bachchoonama
“Scum” is a word associated with waste and dirt. The fastidious can, at a chemist, buy a liquid cleanser which, on its label, boasts about its ability to dispense with “soap scum”.
That’s always struck me as odd, or at least as an oxymoron, because soap is supposed to eliminate dirt and here it is seen as the scum itself. It’s not that I haven’t noticed soap dishes getting layers of soap sticking to them and looking unsavoury, but I’ve always naively believed that a little water clears us of the detritus.
Bear with me, gentle reader, this meditation -- or boring observation --has been stimulated by a statement and use of the word “scum” by the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Angela Raynor MP, in her address to the party’s annual conference. She wasn’t talking about soap, but about the Tories. She twice called them “scum”. I think she meant Boris Johnson and his Cabinet and possibly all Tory MPs or party members. I am sure she didn’t mean all Tory voters, because she makes a big thing of being a northern English lass from the working class and, in the last election, very many such lads and lasses voted Tory.
Nevertheless, her diatribe attracted sensational attention from the press and from Tory commentators. This was not the sort of abuse that a parliamentary Opposition should be proud of. As an Opposition leader she was free to criticise but not to cuss. She didn’t give a toss. Her profile has been raised as never before.
For my part, I wouldn’t object to the occasional use of unparliamentary language if it’s applied to the likes of BoJo’s Cabinet, but wonder about the connotations of the metaphor. Perhaps Angela meant that like soap, the Tories in government are supposed to benefit the populace, but are instead a creeping detritus.
Words, words, words! In the beginning there was one -- I’ve always thought it was “OM” -- - but there’ll never be an end to chatter about them. Not in this generation anyway. In our times the West has bred a generation or two of linguistic revolutionaries, the brave LRs.
The rewriting of history is a constant activity. Times change, wars and revolutions take place, new victors take charge of history and describe events as they want them described.
Indian historians, even in my school days, decolonised the accounts of Indian history written by British Raj historians. These included Macaulay and several retired Army officers, such as Major Rawlinson, whose text me and my contemporaries studied until a newly-recruited radical history teacher, one Satya Martin, told us to put its imperialist attitudes aside and gave us lectures in the Indianised “truth”.
A later development is, evidently, a suspension of the Nehru-Gandhi nationalist determination to not see a phase of Indian history as Muslim tyranny over a Hindu population. Do all historians have political motives? Or are they simply telling the truth from the perspective of their inherited bias? Or do these really amount to the same thing?
The linguistic revolutionaries in the West have set out to demonise and ban certain words. I have been made acutely aware that very many will take strong objection to my using the full version of what is now known as the “N” word.
And yet James Baldwin, not remotely a linguistic revolutionary but a cultural warrior of a distinguished sort, called his book I Am Not Your Nigger. He clearly lays out why the word denies a person the status of being human. He doesn’t want the word banned; he wants it understood as a dehumanising linguistic tool. The documentary derived from the book then resorts to the linguistic euphemism and titles itself “I Am Not Your Negro”. Did the documentarists want to avoid the wrath of the linguistic revolutionaries? Or were they party to the idea that even hearing the “N” word pronounced, or seeing it written, was wounding to the civilised consciousness? Like Baldwin, I thought context determined the value of a word. Not to the LRs. Enunciation is all… err… apart from the denunciation of alleged offenders.
And so, gentle reader, to a contrary current in the linguistic revolution with a vague echo from my personal past. In the 1970s I taught at a London school called Archbishop Michael Ramsay. Since then, the school has undergone very many changes and last week it published a code of linguistic usage for its pupils banning the repeated use of the redundant “like” to punctuate their speech or the lazy, breath-gathering practice of starting a sentence with “basically”.
I sort of, like, welcomed this, like, much-publicised code as hearing, like, every teenager and even, like, older people punctuating their, like, speech with, like… “she goes, like” … and the like… You get my drift. It’s annoying.
The code was not welcomed by all. Two professors of linguistics attacked its imposition, arguing that a population must speak as it chooses and that these particular restrictions amount to class snobbery.
It’s the first time I’m enthusiastically happy to be called a snob....