I see that the competitive Scrabble world is in turmoil over the proscription of 419 words that have been deemed offensive and unusable. I can well imagine the fury of some members of the London Scrabble Association who have tendered their resignation. If you put down n*****, they say, you are not casting a racial slur. It just happens to be a word in the dictionary. Next, you will expurgate the dictionary itself. Such a word does not exist; it never existed. Enough of this woke nonsense. Then again, maybe “woke” itself is a bit questionable. It started out as a rallying call among the disadvantaged, to remain constantly aware of the slings and arrows of their particularly outrageous fortune. “Stay woke, man.” But then the people who couldn’t be bothered with all this brouhaha – generally middle-aged white males – started to use it in a pejorative sense. Perhaps the International Scrabble Committee will interrogate you as to whether you intend “woke” as a term of approbation, or a slur, or maybe just the past tense of the verb to wake.
I rather think there will be few people who are absolutist in their espousal of total freedom to say what you like, even on the Scrabble board. My freedom stops at the end of your nose. And if names are as hurtful as sticks and stones, then maybe there are limits. Clearly I think so, otherwise I wouldn’t have obscured the n-word in a flurry of asterisks.
Manners and morals of a past age can become offensive to us, and we may wish to revise our opinions and attitudes. But still I think it is a mistake to attempt to alter, or obliterate the past. In BBC Radio 4’s A Good Read (which is a good listen), Harriett Gilbert extolled the virtues of an historical romance by Georgette Heyer (was it The Grand Sophy?) with one reservation. There was in the book a passage describing in repugnant terms a Jewish usurer of backstreet London. Ms Gilbert thought the passage lent nothing to the overall structure of a fine book, and that in any subsequent editions, it ought to be removed. Well, I haven’t read the book, so I must choose another example. There is a wonderful chapter in John Buchan’s Mr Standfast, “The Village Named Morality”, in which Richard Hannay is extracted from the Great War trenches by the intelligence services and placed deeply under cover in the village of Biggleswick, a repository for artists, pacifists, and various assortments of “the half-baked”, in search of a German spy network. Thus a purportedly slow-witted South African man of brawn and muscle exercises his veldt-craft in highly unlikely surroundings resembling the drawing rooms of Knightsbridge and Bloomsbury. His descriptions of pacifist meetings in the village’s Moot Hall are hilarious. Then along comes this appalling sentence:
And to my joy, one night there was a great buck n***** who had a lot to say about “Africa for the Africans.” I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.
That sentence has been altered in recent editions of Mr Standfast. The question arises as to whether we are hearing the voice of Richard Hannay, or of John Buchan himself. Is there a remove between Buchan and Hannay? Does Buchan realise that Hannay is a racist? Either way, should the sentence have been edited out?
The natural successor to Hannay in the intelligence world is James Bond. Bond’s attitudes and opinions can be as startling to the modern ear as Richard Hannay’s. Now Bond is not racist. Nor is he a snob (unlike his creator, at least according to Sean Connery) though of course he can hardly escape entirely the innate sense of superiority of the old Etonian. But Bond is sexist. From Thunderball:
Women are often meticulous and safe drivers, but they are very seldom first-class. In general Bond regarded them as a mild hazard… Four women in a car he regarded as the highest potential danger…
(I think if Bond had done his research, he might have found that the most dangerous drivers were males between the ages of 17 and 35.)
From Casino Royale:
These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men… The silly bitch.
Bond is also homophobic. From Goldfinger:
Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of these girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and “sex equality”… Pansies of both sexes were everywhere… He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.
Again, Casino Royale:
And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape.
And, on the same theme, in The Spy Who Loved Me, a real whopper:
All women love semi-rape.
I wonder if that one has survived the blue pen of a latter-day Bowdler. Or, like Hannay’s great buck n*****, has it been erased? I’m not for this kind of revision. Stet, as the newspaper editor says. Let it stand. It seems to me that reconstructions of this kind resemble the act of stripping a disgraced individual of an honour. Somebody blots his copybook and is relinquished of a knighthood. It’s a way of rewriting history. It’s the establishment’s way of distancing itself from a bad odour. That thoroughly filthy fellow is not a knight; he was never a knight. Do we make the world a better place by forgetting how awful it used to be? Do we pull the statues down, or let them remain, as our monuments to shame?
But to return to the Scrabble board, lubra is out. It means an Aboriginal woman. I had thought the term was gin – because I’ve seen it in Nevil Shute books. I had thought that gin was just short for aborigine, but according to the Oxford Dictionary of English it comes from the Dharuk diyin, woman, wife. Dharuk? The Oxford again: an aboriginal language of the area round Sydney, Australia, now extinct. I worked in Brisbane, Queensland, and I was certainly aware that the Aboriginal people were so marginalised as to be virtually invisible. I couldn’t have told you the name of a single Aboriginal language. Perhaps by now, for all I know, they are all extinct. At least a word like lubra, or gin, is a potential portal to the rediscovery of the past.
I believe greybeard is out. It’s ageist. And Jesuit, and Jesuitic, which, if placed on the appropriate squares, used to earn you a whopping 200 points. But I was surprised Jesuit was ever an option. I didn’t think proper names were allowed.