Just horsing around?

There was a time when people used to disparage those who tried to use language to change things. Feminists who promoted the use of less sexist language, for example, were often criticised though few today would call a female police officer a policeman.

And if anyone still has doubts about the importance of language in shaping ideas and opinions, the last couple of days have been instructive.

In the run-up to Anzac Day, a veteran talked on camera about ‘search and destroy’ missions. Of course, he said, they really meant ‘search and kill’. Concordancing on a corpus of newspaper texts finds ‘kill’ collocating most frequently with ‘him’, ‘her’, ‘you’, ‘people’, and also words such as ‘whale’ & ‘bees’. ‘Destroy’ on the other hand, tends to collocate with inanimate objects and abstract concepts – ‘bicycle tyres’, ‘credibility’ as examples – as well as plants. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why the missions got the label they did.

But grabbing rather more headlines than this has been the incident already known as Ponytail-gate. Which, in case you missed it, had the NZ Prime Minister, John Key, pulling on a waitress’s pony-tail on multiple occasions. In explanation, the PM has used words like “hi-jinks” and “horsing around”.

Other words that have come up – but not from the PM – are ‘bullying’ and ‘sexual harassment’.

The PM’s word choice is obviously related to the impression he wants to create. Eric Partridge, the great English authority on slang, tells us you’re playing practical jokes if you’re horsing around, that hi-jinks are going to involve very lively – and often noisy – behaviour.

So, the PM was just having a good time.

The commentators have predictably enough divided along roughly partisan lines.

But I’ve yet to hear the question asked: in what world is it permissible to pull on a stranger’s pony tail?

I suppose the answer to that question might give a pointer as to the more accurate word choice.

John Macalister

John Macalister’s research interests include second language reading and writing, issues in language learning and New Zealand English. He teaches courses in language teaching methodology (reading and writing), and curriculum design.

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4 Responses

  1. And it begs the question of who has the power in this situation? How different the words would be if the situation was reversed!

  2. Cheryl Brown says:

    The telling sentence for me was that he said he had “misread the teacups” which gave the lie to anything he had said about apologies. He was still being flippant. I bet he wouldn’t get close to the rear end of a horse to pull its tail.

  3. Yes, ‘misreading the tea leaves’ is another interesting choice of language. Not only is it nice & cosy, diminishing the nature of the offence, but it also makes it sound as though the default setting for pony-tail-pulling is that it’s acceptable.

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