Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The uncivil servant

So, three cheers for Louise Casey!! Who's that?... None other than the woman currently all over the news as the "foul-mouthed uncivil servant", the ASBO tsar who is apparently not averse to getting "hammered", and thinks all the fuss about hoodies is a waste of time. Well, hurrah. Someone in a position to influence political decision-making who is talking some sense!

But what's the connection to the study of language?... Well, this story is interesting on several counts. Firstly, there is the issue of how we know about it. Louise Casey was invited to give the after-dinner speech at an event for senior police officers. Now, after-dinner speeches and serious political speeches are not the same thing at all. There is a long tradition of political incorrectness, ribaldry and dodgy jokes in the after-dinner genre, and I would find it hard to imagine for so much as a second that senior police officers' dinners are any exception. Amongst a close-knit group, with the wine flowing nicely, many things may get said that wouldn't be said in other contexts. Them's the rules, and on those terms one might see Louise Casey's language choices as simply playing to the gallery - a bit of no-nonsense straight talk that police officers might be expected to appreciate, establishing her street cred with non-standard language forms, and getting them on board with a shared joke about the ineffectiveness of politicians. All in all, from what I can gather without reading the transcript of the speech, a pretty skilful use of language in a specific context.

But, the problem for Louise Casey is that this speech was secretly recorded by a guest at the dinner who clearly had no moral scruple about flogging it to the press, and some kind of personal or political axe to grind. Why else would you secretly tape the speech?... And quoted out of context in a media keen to milk the moral panic about sweatshirts with hoods, all the delicate pragmatic interplay between speaker and audience, and any understanding of language variation, is completely lost.

The other issue this raises is the fascinating but bordering on psychotic way that powerful institutions like the Civil Service want to control the way that its employees use language. Casey is now under official investigation because her language use may be regarded as bringing the Civil Service into disrepute with government ministers. Well, um, let's see now, a 38 year old woman has landed one of the highest profile jobs there is, without rising up through the ranks of the Civil Service or taking its entrance exams. And why was that? Because she has an impressive reputation for telling it like it is, and then cutting through layers of bullshit and bureaucracy to get things done in society. Sounds to me like the Civil Service punka-wallahs have got a mouthful of sour grapes...

This is perhaps also interesting from a language and gender point of view. Casey's speech is reported as a "foul-mouthed rant". Well, on the evidence quoted, that amounts to "bloody", "pissed" and one use of the vernacular verb, to "deck" someone. They think that's foul-mouthed?!! Well, my mum might still clip me round the ear for such "unladylike" language, but no-one else in the 21st century would. Would a bloke using these words be reported as "foul-mouthed"?... Dunno... What do you think?

And that is all quite aside from the equally fascinating way in which the word "binge" has become inextricably collocated with "drinking" and has had its meaning precisely defined as being "5 or more drinks in a row". Language change in action...

'Uncivil servant' embarrassed by remarks

Asbo adviser mocks drink campaign


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