Recently, the Independent published a brief list of the words that the current speaker of the House of Commons has banned from the debate floor. These include the kind of direct insults one might expect—idiot, rat, swine—if witnessing people were trying to pick a fight without swearing.
Not that there’s an outright ban on swearing itself, although there are strong rules against using unparliamentary language—which includes Members of Parliament calling each other liars or hypocrites—and if these rules are broken, the Speaker is permitted to stop the debate and insist that the comments are withdrawn.
A failure to do so could result in a disciplinary hearing, and so canny MPs have learned to sidestep direct accusations of this sort with other terms, like Winston Churchill’s elegant “terminological inexactitude,” used to fill in for the riskier lie.
But the most interesting items on the list are those words that can’t really been commonly used in anger since before most of the MPs that are banned from using them were even born. Possibly even since Churchill was a nipper.
Here’s the top 5:
Once upon a time (in the 18th Century) the term blackguard—which is on a par with scoundrel or rapscallion as description of a dishonorable cad—was enough to cause great offense. It derives from the black guard, a 16th century term used to describe menial kitchen servants—who were thought to be untrustworthy and base—and it’s not unreasonable to assume that it was picked up as a term of abuse by people who’ve never lifted a coal scuttle in their lives. Although the chances of offending anyone with it nowadays seem remote.
A compound noun that draws influence from British and American sources. Snipe—the name of a lowly bird described as “less than a woodcocke” in A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words by James Orchard Halliwell—was used as a term of abuse from the 1600s, sometimes as part of other words, like jack-snipe or snipe-knave, and made the trip across the Atlantic, finding a forever friend amid the gutters of Wall Street in the late 1800s. And again, the inference is that the person you’re insulting is poor and of low breeding.
A relatively recent addition to the canon of dismissive terms, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first use of the term as being from 1910, and it has always referred to something that is small and relatively feeble, even when used affectionately. That’s not the kind of use that the Speaker has banned, of course.
Mr. Pecksniff is a character in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, and a man who liked to take the moral high ground, always pompously setting about the appearance of being involved in the betterment of society while doing very little. So to refer to someone’s political rhetoric as Pecksniffian is to suggest that they are motivated as much by appearing to be good as by actually being good. Still, there are worse Dickens characters to be compared to, as one look at Mssrs. Fagin, Scrooge and Heep will confirm.
If you can’t impugn someone based on their financial wherewithal and social status, there’s always the legitimacy of their birth. Hence git, a variation of the old Scottish term get, which was itself related to the old Biblical standard beget, and used to suggest that the person you’re insulting was born out of wedlock. Still a relatively potent insult, git often finds its way into TV sitcoms even now, and of course Beatles fans will also recognize get as the word used to describe Sir Walter Raleigh in “I’m So Tired.”