It is not just Nick Clegg who's been accused this week of sloppy use of language. I was taken to task for calling Edwina Currie a “nut job”, and not just by the woman herself. (She sent me a tweet, by the way, threatening me with “pistols at dawn” before revealing an alarmingly confused view of weaponry by warning that she was a half-blue at archery.)
Anyway, I was accused of insensitivity to mental health issues, which – in the atmosphere of heightened understanding of disability – was not terribly clever. In fact, I was called “an idiot” by one correspondent. Of course, my intention was to hurl an insult in the direction of Ms Currie not to cause offence to those with mental impairment, but it just shows how careful you have to be.
Poor old Nick Clegg got into even worse trouble. At least no one called for my resignation, and I didn't get a flea in my ear from the former Archbishop of Canterbury. Clegg's “crime”, however, was of a lesser order than mine. In the draft of a speech supporting same-sex marriage, he said that “continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with”.
This caused right-wing critics to fulminate, and the Daily Telegraph letters editor to have an unusually busy day. But what was Mr Clegg actually saying? He was making the point that those who are against same-sex marriage, some of whom are undoubtedly oppositional because of a bigoted view of homosexuality, will use any excuse – economic strife being top of the list – to obfuscate and prevaricate when it comes to this subject.
Mr Clegg wasn't calling George Carey a bigot, (and, in any case, surely he'd be an archbigot), and he knows that a sizeable number of people have reasonable, honestly-held objections to the idea of homosexual splicing. Nor was it an intemperate attack, like Gordon Brown's own Bigotgate on the streets of Rochdale. But, really... Have things got so bad that the use of the word bigot is deemed beyond the pale?
It would have done Mr Clegg more credit to have stuck to his guns, rather than offer a mealy-mouthed response to the inevitable Twitter-fuelled outcry.
As if they were in an episode of The Thick of It, Mr Clegg's aides said something to the effect that they didn't know how the word had got into the speech as no one had written it and the Deputy Prime Minister most certainly didn't think it. I don't believe same-sex marriage is one of the fundamental questions facing this country at the moment, but Mr Clegg has a strong stance on equality issues, and he should tell it how it is. There are bigots who stalk the land: some of them are in the church, some of them are in politics, and some are, yes, in the media.
The word bigot goes all the way back to French contempt of the Normans. It would be a shame if it died out in a blizzard of confected political upset.