Language use is a scorching-hot topic. Leading politicians are being criticised for using loaded language: words and phrases heavy with negative associations that might cause division, inflaming conflict or violence.
Nick Baines, Bishop of Leeds, posted a statement last Thursday saying, "Words are not neutral." He believes that, "Words in the mouths of leaders can shape the language and behaviour of all sorts of people" and he sees it as a "corruption of public discourse".
Does the language we use merely reflect the way we think, or is it more dangerous than that? Can it control the way we, or others, think, and therefore influence behaviour?
Guided by Bible verses such as "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths" (Ephesians 4:29) and "Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking" (5:4), Christians have generally avoided using swear words. But there are some grey areas when it comes to the language we use.
A recent Twitter mini-spat I was involved in debated whether Christians should use terms such as: Pimp up / Sex up, Frape, Food porn and Grammar Nazi.
As an English teacher fascinated by how language changes over time, I’m firstly interested in how these terms have evolved linguistically. 'Pimp up' and 'sex up' are verb phrases used to indicate improvement. "I need to pimp up my outfit for tonight" or "This decor is boring. I’ll sex it up." They’re similar in structure to verb phrases such as 'brighten up' or 'ramp up' but add sexual connotations to suggest making something more alluring or extravagant, perhaps deceptively so.
'Frape' uses the verb 'raped' but prefixes it with the initial letter of Facebook. This method of forming new words is called blending. Words such as 'brunch' and 'jeggings' are also blended. 'Frape' describes what happens when someone takes over your Facebook page, masquerading as you.
The noun 'porn' is being suffixed to other nouns to create new phrases suggesting something desirable or enticing. Linguists might enjoy 'word porn' or cooks 'food porn' (on Instagram, for instance). Also, I’ve seen 'poverty porn' used to describe pictures of suffering people designed to elicit voyeuristic sympathy, often for fundraising purposes.
In a similar way, the term 'Nazi' becomes a suffix in phrases implying an obsession with purity or perfection and a wish to impose that view on others. A 'grammar Nazi' rages about missing apostrophes. A 'femi-Nazi' is an ardent feminist.
Trivialising distress, or political correctness gone mad?
I might have described these terms grammatically and objectively, but can we stay objective? Can Christians adopt terms like these freely, especially if we believe that words have influence and can change attitudes and behaviour? Perhaps we should examine the connotations – and our consciences - more closely.
One problem is that, if we use these terms at all, we do so mostly in humorous, informal contexts. Rarely would a teacher write in a child’s report, ‘Billy should pimp up his homework’. 'Fraping', likewise, is mainly seen as a friend’s prank. 'Grammar Nazi' can almost be a back-handed compliment and people use it about themselves, proudly!
But this is significant, because the original words – 'pimp', 'sex', 'rape', 'porn' and 'Nazi' – are all topics we usually handle with care, respecting their seriousness.
Are we in danger, then, of trivialising people’s real, distressing experiences? If language has power to influence others, could Christians perpetrate casual attitudes towards the raped, those trafficked for sex or Holocaust victims by using the terms in my list?
Or is that just hypersensitive ‘political correctness gone mad’ and the attitude of a linguistic Luddite, refusing to keep up with contemporary trends?
The linguistic concept of pragmatics helps us here. Pragmatics concerns the real meaning behind what we say. For instance, I could say to someone, if I wanted to be unpleasant, "I see you’ve tried really hard with your hairstyle" while meaning the exact opposite. Or I might say, "Isn’t it cold in this room?" meaning "Could someone please close the window." The words we say don’t always match the meaning we intend.
Consequently, someone using the term 'grammar Nazi' could protest that, as they clearly didn’t mean ‘Nazi’ in its original sense, they couldn’t be accused of using extreme language.
But is that protest convincing?
It depends, I suppose, on whether we place our individual freedom to use language that appeals to us or amuses us over the risk of causing offence or hurt.
We love word play. We enjoy linguistic jokes and puns and creativity. Comedians such as Tim Vine, a master of one-liners, make a living out of them. And look what happened during the Boaty McBoatface debate in 2016: a nationwide silliness took over while we played and toyed with the name, slapping 'y', 'Mc' and 'face' on thousands of other nouns for fun and as mild satirical protest that the nation had been polled and then its choice ignored.
This fascination for word play explains why using 'porn' or 'Nazi' as suffixes, for instance, appeals to some of us. It’s inventive and imaginative, and the terms are a handy shorthand for new ideas. We like that.
Christians do and should pitch in to the silliness of movements like Boaty McBoatface. I happily wasted hours on Twitter at the time, checking for the latest genius permutations. However, isn’t there’s a difference between that and the use of 'frape' or 'Grammar Nazi'? With Boaty McBoatface, it was light-hearted nonsense. There was no uncomfortable fusion there of the tragic and the trivial.
I’m not in leadership, and I'm not a public figure, but I’m thinking again about the language I use. As a Christian, I’m meant to model Christ’s compassion and influence the world positively. Does my use of words foster love and compassion for – and in – others, or am I subconsciously minimising serious issues just to fit in with the trends?
Fran Hill is a writer, blogger and teacher in Warwickshire. Her new book – a teacher memoir called Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? – will be published by SPCK in May 2020.
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