Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Do Not Go Gentle

A letter in the Washington Post a couple of days ago went like this:

'In the March 17 Style article "In tails and cuffs," reporter Aaron Leitko described "watching a former Batman get tossed into a paddy wagon." One would think that a newspaper of The Post's reputation would be sensitive to the offense that this term would cause to Irish Americans. While there is some dispute as to the origin of this word, the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins states that "paddy wagon" is a "nickname for the police patrol wagon used to tote lawbreakers off to jail [and] is a carry-over from the days when the Irish were low men on the social totem pole and hence fair game when a roundup of miscreants was needed to create favorable publicity for the law enforcers." In light of this article being published on St Patrick's Day, it is the right moment to criticize the continued acceptance and use of this offensive term.'

Even if one leaves aside the fact that this original meaning of the complained of term is so obscure that it is necessary for the letter writer to quote his chosen dictionary's statement in full, to explain his grievance to otherwise mystified readers, even if one leaves aside the fact that it is just as likely that the term actually derives from either the fact that police vans once had PD written on them and this got elided into paddy or the fact that so many American police officers were of Irish descent, this letter seems completely misconceived to me.

The thing is words change their meanings. Indeed, many people believe that the very reason English is such an enduring and dominant language is precisely because it is so adaptable. There is barely a page of the dictionary that does not contain words that have lost their original significance and sometimes even changed so utterly that they convey the opposite of what they originally did. Flippant, for example, used to mean nimble. Silly once meant blessed. 'Informal' formerly signified that something was unformed and irresolute. More recently, slow - as in slow food, the slow movement - has shifted from being something one avoided into a quality one admires.

Therefore, to dredge up a meaning that no-one ever thinks of and insist that a writer has cast a slur on a group of people by using it, when that association no longer has any relevance to the word in question, is to provoke oneself into outrage where there are no grounds to do so. Sadly, it seems to me, this is an all too common pastime, not just for letter writers, but for all sorts of chat show/panel discussion/column writing whingers.

Of course, no-one should go round making racist remarks or taking cheap shots at women or minorities or the disadvantaged. However, by the same token, occasionally the various groups who live side by side in society might choose to hesitate before rushing to embrace a sense of grievance. Self-pity is a pleasure that it is usually a good idea to avoid.


  1. It never occurred to me to associate the two (though no doubt it's where the connection originated, now I think of it).

    You're right. It would be like Australians getting offended over being called convicts because of a dim past and loose association.

    Hmmm. A lot of those convicts were Paddies. That's the quinella.

    Blame the Poms. Oops.

  2. I once went to a Brasilian event in London that had been given the name "Go Bananas!". It was a fairly typical (in my experience) South American bash involving good music and dancing and the forgetting of resposibilities, but first we had to listen to one of the organisers who felt the need to rant that Brasilians didn't in fact live in trees or look like monkeys, that bananas didn't form the basis of their diet, and that they were in fact responsible for a great deal of fine literature and..... yawn.

    And yes, self-pity is a pleasure that it is usually a good idea to avoid - how very very true.

    1. But, thinking about it, perhaps burning self-righteous indignation a la Hungarians on the subject of Transylvania is even more dangerous.

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  4. [without typo, I hope:]

    The Post "Free for All" section gets many such letters, also letters explaining that the English language is perishing because of the sloppiness of the Post's editing (today's featured sin: the adverb "majorly").

    Today's Free for All has a refutation; the author's surname, "Hartranft" does not sound all that Irish, but she professes to be of Irish descent: http://www.washingtonpost.com/todays_paper?dt=2012-03-31&bk=A&pg=13

    1. Some of my family claim we are descended from King Logbrog of Denmark, whose sons threw him into a pit of snakes, thus snatching the throne from our grasp. I believe I would have made an excellent queen - I might write to Free for All about it actually. Thanks again for a lovely evening, by the way.