Every other day some minor celebrity complains of being ‘trolled’ on social media. The answer is to get off social media. Twitter is not the real world and can be safely ignored. This is common sense but how about those who have no common sense, and stake themselves out on Twitter so others can throw rocks? Why do we call the rock throwers ‘trolls’? ‘Troll’ started as a piece of Old Norse mythology – where ‘troll’ meant vicious dwarfs or imps, supposed to inhabit caves or subterranean dwellings. But if you thumb open your copy of the Oxford English Dictionary this label has now transferred to any ‘unpleasant or ugly person’ (as the OED editors put it in their usual neat turn of phrase). But did you know that this use of the word began as long ago as 1697 when a contemporary of the great poet Alexander Pope called him a ‘sickening little troll’? So, Twitter trolls are nothing new. They are just part of a long line of ‘sickening little trolls’. The worry is those decision-makers who think trolls matter. They make two mistakes: (a) they assume that a handful of angry little people are many in number; and (b) they assume the opinions expressed represent those of the general public. The correct response is to stop empowering them and dismiss them with the appropriate 18th century label of ‘sickening little trolls’.
I am re-reading S. I. Hayakawa’s classic book Language in Thought and Action (1972 edition). In his section on verbal taboos, he says that most taboo words are related to death or sex: a statement that remained true until recently. Now, those old taboo words have become indispensable to screenwriters and flood the ‘entertainment media’, while the powerful incantation of taboo has been pronounced over gender words that are vital to the human race. Without motherhood there will not be another generation but we can no longer say so. According to Nancy Pelosi, the normal concept of ‘mother’ (along with ‘father’, ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’) is verboten. Verbal taboos tell us more about the people who impose them than about the words. So, why do I keep imagining Pelosi rushing around like a panic-stricken Basil Fawlty shouting: ‘Don’t mention the war!’?
You’ve got to feel sorry for Benedict Cumberbatch who got himself into hot water by (supposedly) misusing ‘coloured’ language. Being the woke one he is, he tried to make a sympathetic, anti-racist point during an interview but referred to ‘coloured actors’ when (according to his critics) he should have said ‘actors of colour.’ Surprised? Well, the claim is that ‘coloured people’ was coined by white people to support segregation, while ‘people of colour’ was (allegedly) coined by people of colour to resist such segregation. However, as any lexicographer will tell you, what is needed to support such a claim is what they call ‘citations’ – quotes showing the expressions being used in exactly those ways. In fact, the most powerful ‘citation’ that springs to mind proves the exact opposite. In the US, the major national association representing African Americans calls itself the NAACP – and that stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. If they have chosen ‘coloured people’ to refer to their own people then, clearly, there can be no problem with the expression ‘coloured people.’ Benedict Cumberbatch made a grovelling apology for using the ‘wrong language’. Give up Benedict, you’ll never win. For those whose life revolves around finding offence, they will be offended whatever you say. You could, of course, mimic Marcel Marceau and never utter an offensive word. Mind you, the great mime’s makeup would give offence these days since only a white supremacist would wear that thick, white grease paint.
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