Saturday, 6 October 2012

No decorum in the forum: 2

I still don't speak Latin (but then, to be fair, it's only been a few months since my last confession), and now everyone seems to be speaking it, or at least talking about it, or at least taking about two people in particular who were caught out by their use (or misuse) of a few words of it.

Government Chief Whip and Conservative Party MP Andrew Mitchell last week gave a virtuoso performance of how not to use Latin when he allegedly berated members of the Metropolitan Police who had stopped him from cycling through a ‘please don’t cycle through this’ security gate (rather than walking through a side entrance like a normal human being). Mitchell (who does not appear to be a normal human being) was understandably aggrieved (probably at those who thought he was a normal human being) and proceeded to download a few choice expressions. The Sun (not always the most reliable of British newspapers) reported Mitchell as saying: "Best you learn your [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] place. You don't run this [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] government. You're [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] plebs."

Funny thing is, it wasn't the choice use of Anglo Saxon expletives that upset everyone, nor, apparently, the vitriolic attack upon the group of public servants just doing their duty, no: it was the use of the word 'pleb', the shortened version of the Latin term 'plebeian' that is generally applied to the unwashed mass of normality in the Roman world. 

I've got no real concerns about a Tory MP calling anyone who isn't a Tory MP a ‘pleb’, in fact I rather like the idea of being thought of as plebeian and it would be a mark of honour to be called one by a self-important, puffed-up, port-swilling, patrician, bum-faced, public school Conservative baboon. No, what I object to is the unadulterated string of Anglo Saxon expletives that  one such self-important, puffed-up, port-swilling, patrician, bum-faced, public school Conservative baboon hurled with unjustified vitriol at members of the police who were manning the aforesaid security gate. No one seemed all that bothered about these particular words and that particularly bothers me. Mitchell claims that the Anglo Saxon expletives were not expressly directed at the police, no, he was merely expressing his frustration in more general terms at the world around him.

Quite right.

In fact whenever I get frustrated at work, say by the photocopier that seems to possess the singular inability to photocopy anything onto A4 without first chewing the paper up and then spitting it contemptuously at my feet, or perhaps the drinks machine that can't seem to serve you a cup of tea without first liberally dusting it with dried tomato soup, I can often be seen (and heard) remonstrating with it in the following terms "Best you learn your [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] place. You don't run this [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] University. You're a [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] piece of [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] inanimate machinery."

It doesn't never does.

With immaculate timing, the UK Prime Minister managed his own Latin clanger when he dropped in on US television's The Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman, bizarrely, took the opportunity to quiz the PM on British history, which wasn't strictly fair, given that the British do have about 2,000 years more history than the US, but I have to say it was very entertaining (and simultaneously stomach-churningly gruelling) to watch.

The quiz included Mr Letterman asking Mr Cameron what 'Magna Carta' meant, to which Mr Cameron did his best to appear perplexed. Looking at the interview again, I'm not sure whether Letterman was asking what Magna Carta meant in the greater sense of democracy and the development of civil rights OR if whether he was simply asking 'what it is the literal translation', but David Cameron huffed and puffed and admitted that he simply didn't know. Now I wasn't educated at Eton (can you tell?) and neither am I running the country, but I think that even I could have a stab at answering 'er..does it mean Great Charter David?' (or even 'Big Charter' would have done).

Boris Johnson the jabberingly inbred lozenge-shaped gibbon / Major of London (delete as applicable) later commented that Mr Cameron had undoubtedly faked ignorance in order to make himself appear "more down to earth". Yeah, I do that a lot now you come to mention it, feigning ignorance on geography, football, physics, chemistry, football (again), biology, popular culture, cricket and football to the point that I must appear to be the most solidly down to earth of blokes. "It was a brilliant move" the toffee-nosed blond-moppet / potential next prime minister (delete as applicable) added "in order to show that he didn't have Latin bursting out of every orifice."

Every orifice….? All eleven of them?

Perhaps, if Latin is indeed an ancient orifice-busting language, then it really is something that is best avoided.

Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui


  1. "but the British do have about 2,000 years more history than the US"

    Well Britain didn't exist till 1707 with the act of Union. So that only puts 70 years of "history" on the US, if we are talking about the countries. Unless of course you are referring to general areas and history as written records in which case the Olmecs had writing around 600 BC which beats writing in the UK by about 600 years. If by history you mean continual human occupation than the evidence puts North America at 15-13,000 years a couple of thousand years before humans make it back to the UK. In terms of "history" the US has more history than the UK. Unless of course you only count history as when white European people wrote about it, in which case yes, the UK has the corner on that market.

  2. Good point, yes, gotta love the Olmecs, one of my favourite civilisations…trouble is they seem to have been established in Mexico which, last time I checked, wasn’t part of the USA – now if we’d been talking about ‘the Americas’ then yes, quite right. Would have been good seeing Cameron and Letterman discuss Olmec history – better TV anyway.

    Just to pick up a few points, as you mentioned them, Britain existed, at least as a name, from the time of first Roman contact, a good 1,800 years before the act of Union, the province of Britain first appearing, personified, in a statue of Claudius dated to the mid 1st century AD, still a good 1,657 years (give or take) before the Act. Also, to continue a point, the Act of Union joined the kingdoms of England and Scotland, as you note, in 1707, to create ‘Great (or ‘Greater’) Britain’ and began all sort of talk of a United Kingdom. Britain and the Britons were here a long time before the English arrived in their long boats from northern Europe (or the Scots in theirs from Ireland).

    ‘Continual human occupation’ ? Always tricky – I’m not up on the latest Palaeolithic archaeology from the Americas (nor really from anywhere in the world) but I know that Boxgrove man in the SE of Britain is at least 500,000 years old and, I guess, even given the absence of human activity in the glacial periods that followed, Mesolithic recolonisation of Britain post ice age is about the same as that you cite for the US, not that this is a ‘game of age’. My point (a flippant one admittedly) was about ‘history’ in general which, as an archaeologist, I’m only really marginally interested in, but, for the record, it begins in Britain with Julius Caesar in 55BC, although you could argue that Pytheas the Greek started it all of with a visit to the British Isles in the 4th century BC.

    With regard to your last point, I personally count history as when people start writing things down, irrespective of where and when that may be and I never ever ever judge anyone by the colour of their skin….

  3. It would have been interesting to see if Cameron even knew who the Olmecs were.

    If you go by just countries and just writing then you would have to give the US early 1500ish when the Spanish start exploring Florida so only 1550 years more "history" than the US. I don't tend to count Irish monks or Phoenician sailors, Lost tribes of Hebrews or knights Templars no matter how many stones in a field are found with writing on it or golden tablets are translated. If only I did... .

    Don't mean to take up anymore of your time. My response was mainly reflexive because I hear the statement the Americas have no history all the time and I just have to respond.
    Your point was much better presented than most.

  4. Given that he didn't know what Magna Carta meant, I doubt that Mr Cameron would have had an awful lot to say on the Olmecs! Worry not though, I guess that any comment on the length of US history (however passing) must be ‘red rag’ to the proverbial bull…especially if the discussion happens to mention, as you note, Irish monks / Phoenician sailors / lost tribes of Hebrews / knights Templar / Viking raiders / Romans [delete as applicable] - and must be continually annoying (much as I feel when people ask, as they sometimes do, ‘so did anything really happen in Britain before the Romans got here?’….sigh). Keep up the good work!