Noun choice, sex, lies, and video

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Three linguistic offenses in the UK to report on this week: an injudicious noun choice, a highly illegal false assertion, and an obscene racist epithet. The latter two have led to criminal charges.

Alex Salmond, the First Minister in the Scottish government, is in hot water for the choice of a noun. He had been scheduled to appear on BBC TV to give his predictions about the likely winners of three upcoming rugby football matches, but a BBC adviser decided against this appearance. An irritated Salmond told the press: "the political Gauleiter, we should call him now, intervened to say this shouldn't happen and, really, he's lost the plot."

Shock horror scandal probe! You see, Gauleiter is the term that was used for the provincial governors in Germany when Hitler was chancellor, so now Salmond is being accused of comparing BBC officials to Nazi ones. The Scottish Labour party called it an "ugly smear"; the Scottish Conservative party called it "bully-boy tactics"; and the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie called on Mr Salmond to "retract this slur on the integrity of the BBC." The BBC may have advisers and executives and a head honcho, but don't called them Gauleiters.

It's just another storm in the teacup of political language furores. It'll die down. If Madonna kisses another female pop star, or more snow falls on Heathrow, or a showbiz separation is announced, or a man bites a dog, the story will vanish like morning mist. It probably has already: there are two much more juicy stories that also involve basically linguistic offenses.

One is about a cabinet minister who may have lied to defeat the ends of justice (the most serious of linguistic crimes involve direct lying to the judicial system).

Chris Huhne was an effective and active UK environment minister, noted for his robust attacks on Conservative policy and his faith in the merits of wind turbines, until his very recent resignation. It has been alleged that he escaped a speeding prosecution a few years ago by getting his wife of more than 25 years, the economist Vicky Pryce, to say that she had been driving the car at the time. But unknown to her, he was having a sexual affair with a bisexual staff member, and eventually a tabloid newspaper discovered that (when will these randy male politicians ever learn). He promptly told Pryce about it and moved out, taking up with said staff member full time.

Bad move. Ba-a-a-ad. His angry scorned wife leaked the speeding ticket dishonesty story to a newspaper. The police investigated, and have now decided to put both of them on trial for perverting the course of justice (maximum possible penalty: life imprisonment). And of course the rational thing for her to do is to admit the offense, plead guilty with apologies, and give evidence against her ex-husband. The obvious move for the defense will be to insist that she is making things up out of petty jealousy and bitterness over her failed marriage. Think about it: politics, global warming, fast cars, bisexuality, infidelity, lies, divorce, rage, treachery, revenge… That should be a trial to watch!

The other linguistic story is about soccer player John Terry, captain of the England soccer team, who is alleged to have shouted racial abuse at a black player, Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers, a few weeks ago. He seems to have forgotten about the existence of television, which he was appearing on at the time. The UK's very modest protections for linguistic freedom of expression do not extend to snarling "Fucking black cunt!" at an opposing team member, whether on TV or not (and you can see the words being mouthed in this video; not much doubt about it). Terry is being prosecuted for the criminal offense of racial hate speech. He hasn't gone on trial yet, but he has been stripped of his captaincy on the grounds that it would embarrass England if he led the team in the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament and was then found guilty of a racist speech offense straight afterwards. [Update: After the Football Association said Terry could not captain England, the England team manage, Fabio Capello, immediately resigned his post. Big ripples through the sport from this incident.]

That's our roundup of criminal and/or inadvisable speech acts in the UK newspapers this week. If anyone else says anything shocking, illegal, immoral, offensive, or linguistically noteworthy, Language Log will try to cover it. Though you should keep in mind that we have just one linguistic reporter (moi) covering the entire UK. I do what I can, but the foul-mouthed players and fans in the game of soccer alone are likely to outstrip my ability to keep up with the reporting.

[The UK's very modest protections for linguistic freedom of expression do not extend to opening comments on this post.]

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