I bring American readers news, not previously discussed on Language Log, of not just one or two but three scandals concerning public use of allegedly racist language in Britain that have been thought serious enough to merit the post-Nixonian word-formation suffix -gate. All three have been big stories for the newspapers and other media. They are known as Pakigate, Sootygate, and most recently Gollygate.
1. Prince Harry (one of the Queen's grandsons) was recently in deep trouble for uttering the word Paki on the soundtrack of a cell phone video of some of his army buddies.
2. Prince Charles (the Queen's son) was the subject of another newspaper outcry when it was learned that he followed others in addressing a long-time polo-playing Indian friend of his by the nickname Sooty.
3. Carol Thatcher (daughter of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher) used the word "gollywog" in conversation and has now been removed from her role on The One Show, a BBC program she regularly contributed to.
I should make it clear that racism is a significant issue to me. Nobody hates it more than I do. I think it is the single greatest social evil in the modern world, and more than that, for me it's personal. My son Calvin is black. When he and I and his black Jamaican mother Joan lived together in Britain and later in the USA for many years, and we did sometimes see racism rear its ugly head. For us, it was not an abstraction. Joan and I have been spat at in the street (in Britain, by the way — never in the USA) for just walking along together. That gets pretty close to home.
What I am concerned about in the latest three scandals is whether racism is simply being trivialized (however unintentionally) through dim-witted word taboo. But it is not at all clear.
Prince Harry was serving in the army when he took a few minutes of video of some of his friends using his cell phone. His unit was waiting to ship out to Afghanistan, and they were sitting around, some of them dozing. Harry went around recording them, just for something to do, and as he did a shot of his friend Ahmed Raza Khan he mumbled on the soundtrack that this was "our little Paki friend Ahmed." The abbreviation "Paki" was not used as abuse. It was just a shortened form of Pakistani (Ahmed is indeed from Pakistan), an ethnic/national nickname like Brit, Aussie, pom, frog, or kraut (the British have a whole United Nations of such abbreviatory epithets). The newspapers exploded with politically correct but somewhat implausible horror. A royal apology was demanded, and was contritely given. Episode over.
Prince Charles's friend is the Indian businessman Kolin Dhillon. He has said that he has borne the nickname Sooty since his schooldays, and doesn't mind it at all. "You know you have arrived," he said, "When you acquire a nickname." But Prince Charles was damned anyway, for having become known to have used the familiar nickname. The story did not have any real legs, and faded away.
It is the case of Carol Thatcher that I at first thought was the silliest yet; but it may instead be the least silly. It is not yet possible to tell.
What happened, it seems, was that she was sitting around in the Green Room, a large glass of white wine in her hand, in a group of a dozen people in an interval during a recording of The One Show, and she referred to a black professional tennis player as a golliwog. It is important that she was not among friends in a private place. The group included guests, production staff walking in and out, and a journalist or two. Although it was not broadcast, it was on BBC premises during working hours.
More than one member of the group was offended by the golliwog reference, and said so. There was some kind of altercation between Thatcher and the comedienne Jo Brand. Later a complaint was made to the BBC management. The BBC says it tried for five days to get a "sincere and fulsome" apology out of her and failed. She holds that she was in a private conversation, and was merely a joking remark not calling for any apology. So the decision was made that she would not be contributing to The One Show any more (she is a freelancer who sometimes gets work on BBC shows, not a career BBC staff member).
We need a transcript of the episode, of course. Everything depends on what exactly was said, but of course no one can tell us — it was not recorded, and non-linguists are not competent to provide a precise report of the utterances made in the correct sequence and with the correct intonation. (Plenty of linguists get their transcriptions of even quite short utterances wrong.)
Press reports imply that Thatcher may have expressed amusement at the way the tennis player resembled the golliwog on the jars of marmalade she remembered from her youth. This would been the familiar cartoon figure, a stereotyped negro with a black face and fuzzy hair outline, that appeared on the label of every jar of such marmalades as Golden Shred and Silver Shred, manufactured by James Robertson & Sons. The Robertson company used the golliwog logo right up till 2002. (See this site for a wide variety of images of the Robertson golliwog on badges and so on. Some of the badges depict the golly with a tennis racket.) Everybody refers to the golliwog on Golden Shred jars as the Robertson golliwog; there is no other name for him, other than the abbreviation golly (said to originate as a childish pronunciation of dolly).
It is now known that the tennis player Thatcher referred to was the 23-year-old Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But what exactly did she say about him? Suppose it had been, "He always reminds me of golliwog on marmalade jars; he's so sweet." Would that be racism? (It would certainly be wildly inaccurate; Tsonga is of mixed Congolese and French parentage, a serious young man with short hair and brown skin who looks rather like the young Muhammad Ali; the white British player Andy Murray on a mad hair day looks more reminiscent of the Robertson golliwog in silhouette than Tsonga.) But suppose instead she had said, "I was so glad when that fucking gollywog was knocked out of the Australian Open." That would be different, wouldn't it?
Language Log's view is that when the alleged crime is linguistic, the utterance involved must be accurately reported, in detail. In the case of Gollygate, that condition is not met. We simply do not know if this was a case of politically-correct overreaching or a case of reasonable maintenance of workplace standards of behavior in a public institution.
[Brief update: Tons more in the comments below. But let me just add that at this site we now learn that Thatcher called Tsonga a golliwog several times, and also referred to him (compounding her racial and national epithets) as a golliwog frog. Not looking so nice, is it? I've tried to set things out objectively above (though of course I repeatedly get called a naive fellow-traveller of racism below), but I really do get the impression that I personally wouldn't want to sit around the Green Room at the BBC drinking white wine and listening to Carol Thatcher and her merry jokes.]