Verbal barbarism

Poets are generally on the look-out, on the qui vive, for clichéd language – use phrases like ‘Not fit for purpose’ and ‘At the end of the day’ in their presence at your peril. Yet, the purpose of my blog today is not to talk about bureaucrat-ese or platitudes, but rather talk about something that goes deeper into our attitudes and values. At the start of the year I was researching the papers of the Glaswegian poet and playwright Joan Ure (1918-1978) and I was really struck by something she said. A rather crap middle-market newspaper had described Ure as ‘an intense young housewife’ and she, of course, took exception to this. However, rather than merely be angry at being pigeon-holed as a domestic being that dared, in her free time, to write poetry and plays, she used it as an opportunity to examine the ways in which we, accidentally or otherwise, commit rather serious verbal transgressions against each other. Ure said that we can ‘with the best will in the world’ speak and write in a way that is utterly ‘barbaric’ and besides this, Ure was never ‘married to a house’!

But Ure really had a point – we do generally behave in a way that is verbally callous or insensitive, even when we are trying to be polite or objective. We make great assumptions about people before we have got to know them. How many times have you read in the Daily Mail someone’s entire existence be brought into question with the simple pre-modifier ‘unemployed’? It is almost used as concrete proof of their moral turpitude… I even take the question ‘What do you do?’ in a confrontational light. I do what I like – I breathe, I eat, I work, I sleep and other things besides that… Yet the verbal and social obsession with compartmentalisation persists. I have been seated at a dinner table laden with things to eat, only for the host to say to a fat person in their midst: ‘I put the cakes at the other side of the table, so that you won’t be tempted’. That might be well-meaning in its intention, but it’s also murderously cruel. It’s that sort of verbal barbarism Ure was talking about.

But how far do our automatic (re)actions go? Do we have to be on our guard all the time? I’d say yes. I live in a small village that is very popular with tourists and it is getting to the stage where a large proportion of the properties are holiday lets. I am not grumbling about people having to make money any which way they can, but walking around the village has brought something else to mind. Although I am not ‘on the spectrum’ to use modern parlance, I really struggle to say ‘Hello’ to people, because I have difficulty gaining and maintaining eye contact. However, I do try to say ‘Hello’ and I feel that I do so indiscriminately. That said, I have noticed that the very act of saying ‘Hello’ is an inherently political act. We spurn people we dislike etc, but it goes deeper than that. I think saying ‘Hello’ for many people is about arbitrarily deciding upon an idealised community. Quite often I have been walking around the village and have clearly said ‘Hello’ only to be ignored and to quickly hear the people who have ignored my greeting say ‘Hello’ to other people in their midst. In all cases both parties have been unknown to me. This might be paranoia, but I doubt it, it has happened too many times to count. I think many tourists who go on holiday expect a place filled with people just like them, so they instinctively say ‘Hello’ to those who conform to that image (walking sticks / Regatta outdoor gear etc), which is rarely the people who live in that place all year round.

This is not an anti-tourist piece of propaganda, but rather an example of how I see ourselves drawing our battle-lines almost instinctively and immediately through language. I think it pays for us to pay attention to what we let slip from our mouths, and also what we withhold from others who we feel are not from our own clan.



One thought on “Verbal barbarism

  1. I live in a new town in Fife, but it’s riddled with paths, and walkways and bicycle tracks. From our house, it’s five minutes walk up the path and over the bridge to a set of shops. Lots of people tread this path more than once a day — you can see them from our kitchen window — and if we go up to the post office (frequent trip) we pass people we know personally but also far more that we just know by sight. Most of the ones you just recognise by sight delberately don’t make eye contact or speak.

    I am a bit cussed and doggedly friendly so I almost always say ‘hello there’ or ‘lovely morning’ loudly, and usually they then respond, sometimes (I think) with a kind of relief that I’ve established an alternative, but easily recognised, code.

    Just occasionally someone ignores me completely. If they are young and wearing headphones, I think they are not interested in communication from this old woman (me) and don’t expect it because they know that people on the path don’t speak. Also they don’t even hear me, however loudly I say something (I have been known to wave). But there is indubitably a ‘don’t speak’ code on this path.

    On other paths, in villages in the highlands for examples, hill walkers will invariably speak to you in a friendly way: there is a different code, but everybody knows it.

    On London tubes nobody speaks to a stranger, but on busses sometimes they are much more chatty, especially if they have small children to break the ice.

    The occasional person on my home path to the post-office looks a bit creepy or half-pissed. I don’t always say ‘hello’ to them. I also don’t always say hello to a lady who responds to ‘hello’ with the story of her life, even though I know how badly she needs me to say ‘hello’.

    ‘Hello’ seems such a little word. The same word plays a different role in different codes for different people on the SAME path!


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