Today in the UK there is brewing one of those made up press rows about which the general population stares in disbelief and has to check it’s hearing. This row concerns the use of the word nuts. On BBC TV’s Andrew Marr Show The Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was interviewed and asked about the proposed policy of the Opposition’s Labour Party and it’s leader Ed Milliband to increase Corporation Tax for businesses. The Prime Minister called the policy ‘nuts’ the interviewer tried to turn this into David Cameron calling Ed Milliband nuts but Mr Cameron managed to avoid that potential trap, however, the row is not about the respective merits of the policy which on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme was not discussed. Instead it was about the use of the term nuts and linked to a story last week about Asda, a supermarket chain in the UK, withdrawing from sale Halloween costumes described as Mental Patients because they were potentially offensive to Mental Health Patients or sufferers. This could have led to a more interesting discussion about the continued Americanisation of events like Halloween and the importing of those traditions into the UK instead it was only about whether the mental health lobby was offended. They better not watch One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest or The Shining then, or read/watch any other horror, thriller, crime, story that feature potentially psychotic behaviour. Let alone Basil Fawlty hitting his car with a branch because it has broken down, or should we just call him nuts, sorry I’m not supposed to use that word it might offend other car hitters suffering from a mental aberration.
What has this to do with writing you might ask? Censorship, is my answer and in particular self-censorship. Something that public pressure in the form of media frenzy seems determined to inflict on all of us that write. Now irrespective of the benefits or otherwise of the political policy why shouldn’t Cameron be allowed to call the policy nuts if that is what he thinks it is. I’m sure Mr Miliband thinks several of Mr Cameron’s policies are nuts as well and if he does why should he not use that term which is defined in this context in many thesaureses asNuts – adjective (slang)= insane, mad, crazy (informal), bananas (slang), barking (slang), eccentric, batty (slang), psycho (slang), irrational, loony (slang), demented, nutty (slang), deranged, loopy (informal), out to lunch (informal), out there (slang), barking mad (slang), gonzo (slang), doolally (slang), off your trolley (slang), up the pole (informal), as daft as a brush (informal, mainly, British), not the full shilling (informal), wacko or whacko (informal), a sausage short of a fry-up (slang), psychopathic, off the air (Australian, slang) • Either he’s joking or else he’s nuts. • A number of the players went nuts, completely out of control.
Now some of these uses do imply behaviour that is abnormal and have been linked with slang terms to describe mental illness, but should that stop us using a perfectly good description for a policy – I don’t think so. There is a worrying habit where perfectly good terms are no longer used by writers and commentators because of fear of offending someone. Language changes – just look at the term gay for an example, I know what it used to mean, happy, joyful, now it can’t be used in any other context apart from to describe homosexual behaviour. Will I soon have to stop using nuts to describe some of my favourite food for fear of alienating the mental health lobby that really will be nuts.
Meanwhile I continue to know very little about why Mr Cameron thinks Mr Milliband’s policy is nuts nor do I know what the policy link in the USA is between the latest budget crisis and the existing Health Care policy. Again the story there was described as a row against President Obama and the Republican Party with neither policy being debated just personal invective fired in all directions. Whatever happened to reasoned debate. Again on Radio 4 this was linked to a Republican Congressman reading extracts from a Dr Zeuss book, why was not clear and what that had to do with budget debate was not clear. This was linked to a doorstop canvasser in Virginia knocking on someone’s door. Meanwhile the fact that Asian stock markets were down several percent because of the impending budget issue wasn’t mentioned. Now in a debate on Education or literacy, reading Dr Zeuss may be relevant but the whole article struck me as being nuts and if that offends some mental health experts so be it. Also nuts was the fact that the BBC like many media outlets instead of calling it that actually gave more air time to that Congressman reading extract from a Children’s book. As to the actual policies being proposed by Democrats and Republicans we heard nothing. The story was then linked to the next Presidential Election not even a year since the last one – please are you all nuts!
I’ve used the BBC’s reporting twice here simply because I was listening as I often do to BBC’s Radio Four Today programme. I used to think the programme provided a cultured insight into the day’s headlines but now seems to be little more than thirty second sound bites interrupted by the presenters trying to get their take on the story. Of course the politicians don’t answer questions, except Mr Cameron did bluntly, albeit on a TV interview, then tried not to because he was scared of the language he used. Now that was nuts. The fact that he may have joked about the Mental Health lobby was also discussed. Is it just possible that we could have a debate about the tax policy of the parties rather than a debate about the language used to describe the policy. How about some facts or am I being nuts!
So what as a would be writer should I do? Should I add to my earlier rants about controversial subjects by using as many examples of allegedly controversial words as possible? I’ll self censor here, I don’t want to offend anyone in a blog so no N, (black) C (female sexual organ), used but I have mentioned them, should I not. If I was writing 1950’s dialogue in the American South shouldn’t the N word be used. If I quoted D H Lawrence should I use the C word? I’m feeling happy should I call myself gay or avoid the words as toxic, use euphemisms in order not to upset people. Do I have to add loony, nuts, mad and countless others to my proscribed list for fear of upsetting someone. That would be nuts. Apparently there are over 1 million different words in the English language with many having multiple meanings depending on context although the Oxford English Dictionary
“contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as sub-entries”
Does this rising tide of words we should not use, mean that the number of words will reduce, do we as a population not just writers want our vocabulary reduced?
Now that really would be nuts!