Does My Bum Look Big In This? (or That Wretched F-word Again)

Posted at 17:07pm on 4th August 2008

A fortnight ago I wrote that legislation against the use of certain words (like Chav) is ludicrous and went on to quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. “It’s not the word that’s at fault,” I said. “What’s needed is a change of attitude. And that, sadly, can’t be dealt with by the law.”

I read this to my husband, and he totally disagreed with me!

“Look at the way attitudes have changed towards homosexuality because of changes in the law,” he said.

CAN THE LAW GAG DISSENTERS?

Yes, he has a point. Though I would argue that what the law has done is to silence those who disagree, or are uneasy, with the practice of homosexuality , rather than effecting a real change in mindset. In other words, the law has shouted them down.

But as someone who works with words, I can’t pretend that I don’t know their value. A well turned phrase can turn a nation. Think of ‘Your country needs you’ on posters at every street corner during WW2. Or Churchill’s ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches’ speech. Or Martin Luther King’s ‘I had a dream’. Even, the literary, ‘Last Night I Dreamt I Went To Mandalay Again,’ is evocative. There’s no doubt in my mind that, whatever I think of legislation against the use of certain words, their power cannot be underestimated.

STICKS & STONES

So why did I write that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’? It was a saying that my grandmother used whenever I was upset by some falling out in the school playground. I adored her, and I think the feeling was mutual. Because she loved me – and this ‘sticking-plaster mentality’ is probably common to all mothers and grandmothers – she wanted to make me feel better about myself. Her way of doing so was to show me that I had a choice. I could choose to take the negative attitudes of those who declared themselves ‘I’m not your friend any more’ as a personal – and hurtful – attack on my character. Or I could choose to deflect it – as a shield deflects an arrow from a bow.

I remember my youngest daughter in conversation with her best friend in the back of my car. ‘Jonny’s dad’s car is bigger than ours.’ Best friend: ‘My dad’s car is bigger than yours!’

Daughter: ‘Yeah, but our house is bigger than yours.’ Pause. Best friend: ‘But my mum is bigger than yours.’ Daughter: ‘No she’s not. My mum’s bottom is much bigger than yours.’

Me, seeking a polite alternative to the f-word: ‘What did you say you’d like for tea?’

I’m still not convinced that legislation criminalising the use of certain words can effect any lasting change to the feelings behind them. There will always be little girls telling other little girls, ‘you’re not coming to my party’, just as there will always be big boys thumping the hell out of each other. Unfortunately, it’s human nature. How do you think we should deal with it? Through legislation? Or through parents teaching their children to have good and positive attitudes to all with whom we share the planet? Drop me a line and let me know. See you soon.

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