EVEN among the more temperate members of the social-media community, there has been an outbreak of immoderate language after last week’s referendum result. Academics have been reduced to vulgarity and artists to expletive, as we try to verbalise the anger.
In such times, one might turn to William Dunbar. “Maggoty mutton, gorged glutton . . . rank beggar, oyster-dredger”; and there’s a lot more where that came from. Dunbar’s “flyting” with his fellow poet Walter Kennedy at the court of James IV of Scotland was the subject of last week’s The Verb (Friday, R3). A “flyting” is a virtuoso display of insult, a particular kind of performance whose contemporary champion is Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed adviser in The Thick of It.
Ian McMillan and his guest seem always to be enjoying themselves; and not least here, in discussion of transgressive language. The theatre critic Michael Billington celebrated the “occasional splendour” of the expletive — something that modern theatre is apt to tarnish by over-exposure. The philosopher Rebecca Roache talked us through the options for avoidance: asterisks, bleeping, and alternative words (”fudge”, “sugar”, et al.).
None, it appears, packs the same visceral punch as the real thing — people have been wired up to monitors to prove this. Which demonstrates that the word itself — the sound and the daring act of articulating it — is the important bit, not what the word means. Thus, it provides a fascinating resource for investigating registers of linguistic meaning. That’s what those highly educated potty-mouths on social media will claim, anyway.
Professor Ian Robertson provided another psychological perspective on Brexit angst in Weekend (Saturday, World Service). His study on how to cope with stress suggests a Goldilocks model: too little and you can’t be bothered to get up in the morning; too much and you find yourself yearning for the comfort of the pavement from the ledge of your nearest high-rise office block.
The chemical that regulates all this is oxytocin; and the trouble with the Brexiteers is that they had too much of it. Oxytocin encourages you to bond with your neighbours, to feel good about yourself as part of a community; but it also instils fear and dislike of outsiders.
Beyond the neuro-bilge, Weekend provided a calmer perspective on the post-referendum scene, and is to be applauded for postponing utterance of the word “seismic” until half an hour in. I enjoyed the veteran BBC correspondent Michael Cockerell’s contribution, which traced the origins of British Euroscepticism from a position in 1975 which was supported only by fringe journals such as the Morning Star, the Dundee Courier, and The Spectator, to mainstream acceptance.
For many, it will be too early for jokes. But, if not, then I can recommend (some of) last week’s Dead Ringers (R4, Friday), a satire that is admittedly only ever hit-and-miss. The Anglican community might enjoy a BBC season of programmes aimed at post-referendum reconciliation: “Things We Can All Agree On”. This might feature an episode of Moral Maze in which Michael Buerk chairs a discussion on whether biscuits are nice, and Alan Bennett investigates for Panorama whether policemen are looking younger these days. And not an asterisk in sight.