Columns

Who owns the language?

30 October 2021

9:00 AM

30 October 2021

9:00 AM

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is giving local residents £25,000 grants to enable them to change the names of the roads in which they live. Some Londoners, I believe, find it uncomfortable to live in a street which has a name redolent of colonialism. Fair enough. I hope, though, that Sadiq will also give grants to right-wing white neighbourhoods of the capital so that the residents there can change the names of roads to make them more redolent of colonialism — such as Cecil Rhodes Avenue, or Zulus 0 British Army 5 Crescent. Or perhaps install a name which commemorates the mayor himself, such as Vacuous Dwarf Close.

This war on history, tradition, rationality, logic and complexity (known in short as ‘woke’) continues apace. I wondered a couple of years ago if we had reached its peak, but I was being untypically optimistic. In truth, we are scarcely at base camp and the identitarian mountaineers with their corporate Sherpas are busy planning the next ascent. And so we come to Mr Joseph Anthony Barton, known popularly as ‘Joey’, manager of Bristol Rovers. Here he is expressing his exasperation after his team got stuffed again: ‘Someone gets in and does well but then gets suspended or injured. Someone gets in for a game, does well but then has a holocaust, a nightmare, an absolute disaster.’

I think you’ve spotted the problem? A Jewish Bristol Labour councillor, Fabian Breckels, insisted that Barton should ‘consider his future’. A local Jewish journalist quoted the comedian and writer David Baddiel when coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what Barton meant when he used the word ‘holocaust’ — the only thing that matters is that people might find it upsetting. And there, in that chilling observation, you have almost the entire problem with wokery. It doesn’t matter what you say or mean, only what others might make of it.


Let us look at the semantics for a moment. In the seven dictionaries I consulted for a definition of ‘holocaust’, every one cited as the primary definition ‘a situation in which many things are destroyed and many people killed, especially because of a war or a fire’, or a variation thereof. From the Greek ‘holokauston’, then — meaning ‘everything burned’. The mass murder of the Jews by Hitler’s National Socialists was always cited only as a secondary definition and always with the definite article: the Holocaust. Barton did not use the definite article.

In other words, holocaust has a meaning which both precedes and is different to the one prosecuted by Nazi Germany. I wonder if, after the consecutive exchanges of nuclear weapons, councillor Fabian Breckels will be on the glowing remains of Twitter objecting to the BBC correspondent, broadcasting from a bunker deep underground, describing the outcome as having been ‘a bit of a holocaust, frankly, Huw’.

Of course Barton is guilty of overstatement. A footballer having a bit of an off day has not really endured a ‘holocaust’. It is an inapt metaphor. But then football is built upon overstatement and hyperbole and footballers and managers are not renowned for their glorious command of the English language — and perhaps as a consequence of this lacking, this stunted vocabulary, they have a tendency to exaggerate, to overstate the case. It is only a few years since the former manager Alan Pardew said, while commentating on Michael Essien’s tackle on Ched Evans, ‘he absolutely rapes him’. These footballing grotesqueries are par for the course, but nothing offensive is meant by them. It is simply a case of people for whom words do not come easily desperately trying to express themselves with a little colour.

Should Barton consider his position? Yes, definitely, but not because he said the word ‘holocaust’. Barton took Bristol Rovers, a biggish club at that level, down from League One last year against the odds. They are now floundering very near the bottom of League Two. His win percentage is 22.9, which is shocking. But more to the point, Barton has continued to be employed both as a player and a manager despite serving a prison sentence for assault, for stubbing a cigar out on a young player’s eye, for repeated punches thrown at fellow players, for affray, for breaking gambling rules, for violence, for allegedly attacking a woman. Still employed. Are we really saying that his overstatement is worse than all these things, that this is the faux pas which requires him to lose his job?

The past ten years have not been good for Britain’s gently dwindling community of Jews. Anti-Semitic attacks have risen markedly, fuelled by radical Islamists and the infantile middle-class British left which sees heroes in the genocidal racists of Hamas. Jews have been forced to suffer seeing a party for which they once voted en masse, Labour, riven with this new anti-Semitism (which, when you deconstruct it, isn’t so different from the old anti-Semitism). Jews are attacked verbally and physically on public transport and in the street. Obscenities are daubed on synagogues. Israel alone is singled out for hatred by the radical chic imbeciles of the left. It is scarcely a surprise that our Jews should feel beleaguered and under assault and deprived of the protection afforded to other, more fashionable minority groups.

But the answer is not to retreat into the same place as the professional victims from other minorities, be they racial or gender minorities. You cannot corral language and prevent people outside of your group from using it. My editors aside, nobody has the right to tell me what words I can and cannot use because of the possible offence that might be taken if I use them, regardless of my intention and the actual meaning of what was written. The notion that what Joey Barton meant does not matter if people become upset with him is yet another small step on the path to totalitarianism. The language police have no time for nuance and context.

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