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Punch of language

01 July 2016


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.

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