The language of political put-downs

Human muck-worms. Cowards and curs. Half-pie wowsers. Dirty little squibs. Hypnotised rabbits. Whatever your political persuasion, you’ve got to agree that some of New Zealand’s by-gone politicians were creative when it came to name-calling.

The language ruled as unparliamentary in New Zealand’s Parliament has been the focus of research by Victoria University of Wellington’s Ruth Graham, who graduates this month with a PhD in Applied Linguistics.ruth-5

Ruth, who carried out her research while working part-time at Victoria’s Law Library, pored page by page through nearly 300 volumes of parliamentary debates to analyse what kind of language was ruled to be unparliamentary by the Speakers of the Legislative Council and the House of Representatives, between 1890 and 1950.

“Sitting behind the Speakers’ ruling of unparliamentary language is a whole history we inherited from Britain’s Westminster system, which is what our parliament is based on. So conventions about the use of unparliamentary language go back to the 16th century.”

She says there are common themes to the language that has been deemed unacceptable by Speakers over the years.

“There’s a core group of concepts that are always ruled to be unparliamentary—these include calling someone a liar, saying they lack courage, or showing a lack of respect. There is also a situational-dependent category of language, which was often dictated by the context—for example, during the Second World War there was heightened sensitivity about comparing someone to a German or the Gestapo.

“I also found that comparing someone to an animal was very commonly reprimanded by the Speaker. In this particular time period the word ‘cur’—meaning mongrel dog—was used. ‘Dingo’, ‘poodle’, ‘political magpies’, ‘human muck-worms’, and ‘modest as a codling moth’ were other creative, animal-inspired terms that I found.”

Ruth says some of the most frequent users of unparliamentary language from the time period she analysed were Richard Seddon (Premier from 1893 until his death in office in 1906) and Bob Semple (a Labour MP from 1928 until 1954).

“I also analysed the trends over time—there was a big increase in the use of unparliamentary language around the Depression in the 1930s. This was related to the rise of the Labour Party, which became the Government in 1935.”

She says unparliamentary language has a legitimate place in parliamentary discourse. “The research shows that unparliamentary language, rather than simply being a heat-of-the-moment reaction, has a strategic role that can become part of the institution’s traditional way of working.”

Ruth says she enjoyed conducting her research. “It brought together several of my interests—I worked as a research librarian at parliament for a number of years, so I was familiar with and interested in parliamentary procedure. The study has provided a fascinating insight into the use of language in the New Zealand Parliament.”

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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