Get the France out of here!

WORDS APART: The Language of Prejudice by Jonathon Green Kyle Cathie pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Green is not afraid of getting his hands dirty. Or his mouth. As our leading lexicographer of slang, he has developed a robust command of obscenity which never becomes gratuitous. With Words Apart, he confronts the myriad terms of racist and national abuse without turning a hair, or becoming sullied by them.

Lenny Bruce observed that if you repeat the word nigger often enough it becomes meaningless and loses its power. Well, that hasn't happened yet, but it is true enough that, like slang, terms of abuse move in and out of fashion. Along with what Green calls "the core vocabulary of abuse" - wog, mick, kaffir and so on - he has unearthed a dizzying treasure of derogatory words and phrases which duly reveal an unattractive characteristic of the human race, its intolerance of and hatred for anybody who is, seems to be or can be characterised as "other". One is struck by the lengths people will go to be offensive: did the phrase frijole-guzzler ever trip off the tongue?

Jonathon Green has worried that his study might become a useful handbook for racists of limited invention to develop their vocabulary. But apart from the language of colour prejudice and familiar obnoxious terms, the larger part of this book considers the application of national types. It is the spirit in which these things are said which gives them their power, as in an Irish Banjo (a shovel) or a Chinese fire-drill (pandemonium). You could easily end up with the impression that any national designation is derogatory, except when used strictly according to its dictionary definition. Eurosceptics might like to adopt the euphemistic curse "Get the France out of here!", a phrase from the West Indies. But generally, out-of-context insults are more laughable than effective. I can already hear myself saying "It will be Prussian" when I mean to say that no good will come of it.

Although the parameters of the book are defined in the introduction, Green has an attractive compulsion to make entertaining digressions. An exposition of the term frenching, which means (he claims) to fellate, leads him into a delightful and extended essay on associated slang, with valuable notes on words used in erotic literature which have now fallen into disuse. I discovered minetting (from the French for little kitty or pussy) and am also indebted to him for his etymology of honky. It is a diminutive of bohunk, itself a mixture of Bohemian (ie Czech) and Hungarian, and thus came to mean an all-purpose oafish prole.

There are always omissions in a work such as this one. Why is the contemporary nugmegging not included in the section on sexual partners of different colours? Perhaps more seriously, confining the focus primarily to xenophobia as the motor of abuse means that, for instance, the rich seam of sexual difference is unmined; we do not find poofter or shirt-lifter or mattress- muncher although we do read of sapphic love and Greek love because of its reference to a nationality.

Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, since Jonathon Green didn't set out to catalogue that particular category of abuse. My regret is only that I would like to hear what he has to say about these things.